A Journey of the Human Spirit

When death is imminent, what choices do we have? In 1943, imprisoned in Theresienstadt concentration camp (near Terezín, Czech Republic), Viktor Ullmann (music) and Peter Kien (libretto) composed an opera, The Emperor of Atlantis, a satire of Hitler and his followers. The Nazis shut down the production during rehearsals, shortly before it was to be performed.

This past week, as the culmination of a remarkable collaboration —Central City Opera, the Colorado Symphony, Ballet Nouveau Colorado, Mizel Arts and Culture Center, and Newman Center Presents—this opera (based on sources and arranged for the stage by Henning Brauel), was performed for the first time in this region along with a companion piece, the world premiere of noted choreographer Garret Ammon's "From Darkness to Light," a ballet set to Ofer Ben-Amots' "Concertino," which the composer adapted, from his original composition, for this production. Together, the opera and the ballet are the world premiere of A Journey of the Human Spirit, an remarkably uplifting transformation born from a dark time.

What Ullmann and Kien, and their artistic collaborators at the time, chose to do in the face of death was to mock their tormenters with Brechtian honesty, in the process revealing the sociopathology of fear-based societies.

Borrowing a page from the Greeks, the play is performed in whiteface, as the basis for the masks of the seven actors, each of whom represents an archetype, or stock character, similar to the cross section found in Commedia dell'Arte:

Der Lautsprecher (The Loudspeaker) Jeffrey Tucker
Harlekin (Harlequin) Steven Paul Spears
Der Tod (Death) Jeffrey Tucker
Der Trommler (Drummer-girl) Katherine Pracht
Kaiser Uberall (Emperor Overall) Keith Phares
Bubikopf (A Girl) Devon Guthrie
Ein Soldat (A Soldier) Ian O'Brien

The overture is bright, even mischievous, a mood that is revisted throughout—evoking our utmost admiration, as we consider the circumstances under which the opera was created.

"The world is upside down," we are told in the opening scene, as two characters, umbrellas over head, bemoan their quickly diminishing time on this planet ("... days, days, who wants to buy days?").

Much as in the famous Medieval morality play, Everyman, Death is at the door; but here, instead of fearing it, they embrace it: "Laughter is immortal," they sing.

So, Death, too, is mocked, even as she introduces the Emperor, his mask looking like a cross between Adolf Hitler and Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator.

The Emperor is upset that Death has not come quickly enough for those whose extermination he has ordered. He is told that none have died since a "disease" has broken out. The "hospital" has been liberated and the "patients" have joined forces with the "enemy."

After a rush of orchestral gunfire, the chorus exclaims that "A mighty doctor has removed a cataract from our eyes." The war is over and the forest, the water, and the world will grow and flow freely, as Death finally bears away the Emperor.

For the coda, a traditional Hebrew prayer is modified:

Teach us never to ignore our brother's needs.
Teach us to keep your holiest law:
Never use the name of Death in vain.

One must salute the immense spirit required to reaffirm the wonder of the world in the face of monolithic evil. We can only hope that humankind finds the wherewithal to muster comparable strength in the face of the equally devolved forces that threaten us today.

To that point, as the opera fades out, dancers manifest at the back of the stage, as if the ghosts of those tens of millions, who perished in the camps and on the battlefields, were reborn as a rekindling of the human spirit .

We, the living, may search for meaning in the Holocaust and never find it, perhaps looking for logic where only poetic justice may be served; thus, the ballet serves as a perfect resolution for the questions raised in the opera.

Among the themes that Ammons develops, interdependency and trust stand out as particularly strong antidotes for the extremes of ego, separateness, and fear that enable fascism, whether it be embodied in the Emperor of Atlantis or some subtler and more insidious variety, such as we experience today.

Like those for whom the opera was written, our struggle is at every level of consciousness—Without such tests, how would we be tempered?—yet, here, in this opera and ballet, we are shown the way.

The world premiere of A Journey of the Human Spirit—a collaboration of Central City Opera, the Colorado Symphony, Ballet Nouveau Colorado, Mizel Arts and Culture Center, and Newman Center Presents—ran January 16th and 17th, 2013 at Gates Concert Hall.

Bob Bows


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