Considering the circumstances under which Der Kaiser von Atlantis was written — (it was written in the Theresienstadt concentration camp with the musicians available, and was rehearsed but not allowed to be performed because the Nazis thought the title character seemed a bit too much like Hitler) — it seems reasonable to consider it something akin to an unfinished work. The piece starts out with a really interesting idea which it doesn’t really have the space to explore. The libretto is crudely formed, and reads more like the work of a poet than a dramatist. Each individual moment works splendidly as an exploration of its own theme, but the parts fail to gel into a particularly coherent whole. The title character of Kaiser Overall gets a strong starting point, and a strong ending point, but not the development that brings him from point A to point B.
The opera begins with a prologue, which takes the form of a conversation between Death and the clown Harlekin. The characters converse on their melancholy state. A drum-major announces that Kaiser Overall has declared a universal fight to the death. Everyone will take up arms and kill each other. Death feels quite frustrated by this; he feels overworked, and thinks Overall is being disrespectful of him. So Death goes on strike, and in the ensuing bloodbath, no one can die. In the second scene, Overall gets updates on how the murdering is going, and is distressed to find out that no one is dying. In an effort not to be seen as weak, he tries to turn the situation into a positive, by saying that his soldiers have been given a formula which makes them immune to death.
In Scene III, we meet a soldier and a maiden who are unable to kill each other, so they fall in love instead, casting death aside. And in Scene IV, everyone’s pretty upset about this no-one-being-able-to-die thing — not least the people who are stuck with mortal wounds that should have killed them hours ago. Death shows up, and tells Overall that he will get back to work, but Overall must give up his life first. Overall agrees, and promptly dies, followed by everybody else. A quartet sings a hymn to death, and the opera ends.
I’m not really going to dig into a full dramatic analysis of the opera. It’s a very surreal opera, a very philosophical opera, and not a very complete opera. I don’t think it’s really my place to tell you what you’re supposed to get out of it. Peter Kien’s libretto is vague, doesn’t really apply itself as any specific allegory, and very open to interpretation. Ullman’s score employs a good deal of pastiche and reference, and evokes a variety of composers of the era, including Shostakovich, Szymanowski, and even Kurt Weill. On a moment-to-moment basis the opera is most effective.
Der Kaiser von Overall was presented tonight at the McIntosh Theater in the Earl V. Moore School of Music, directed by Matthew Ozawa, and performed by students in the School of Music, Theater, and Dance. It will be presented again tomorrow, April 7th, at 8pm. Admission is free, and the opera runs approximately one hour. Supertitles in English are projected above the stage.
The singers all gave wonderful performances. Louis Ong as Kaiser Overall and Zachary Crowle as Death imbued their characters with immense gravitas, which Lucas Alvarado and Kayleigh Jardine, as the Soldier and the Maiden contrasted with a lovely tenderness. Daniel McGrew, Jenny Cresswell, and Logan Dell’Acqua had the most abstracted roles, as Harlekin, the Drummer, and the Loudspeaker respectively, and though their characters were not very defined, their performances were definitive. The fourteen-piece ensemble, lead by Timothy Cheek, gave out a sound almost twice its size — though I regret to say an electric keyboard is still no substitute for a real harpsichord.
The production is directed by Matthew Ozawa, and though the theater itself is not very conducive to a tightly-focused dramatic treatment of the work, a lot is done with lighting (also by Ozawa) to carry the piece. There was a lot of apparent symbolism which at places I felt bogged the production down, and there were moments where the sheer size of the stage proved distracting, but I cannot count this against the opera. Der Kaiser von Atlantis is of sufficient interest for its history alone, and any production therefore worth an eye or two.