Andreas Mitisek, General Director

Viktor Ullman/Carl Orff
The Emperor of Atlantis/
The Clever One

  • May31 7:30PM
  • Jun 4 7:30PM
  • Jun 6 7:30PM
  • Jun 8 3:00PM

About the Opera

The Emperor of Atlantis (Der Kaiser von Atlantis) and The Clever One (Die Kluge) are two satires about oppression and dictatorship. Both operas were composed in 1943 but in different worlds: Ullman's work in the concentration camp of Theresienstadt (Terezin), Orff's opera in Frankfurt, Germany. The historical tension between these two works is obvious. On one side is Ullmann, who vanished during the Third Reich; on the other side Orff, whose Carmina Burana is performed every day somewhere on this planet, and who paid lip service to the Nazis in the same manner as Strauss.

The Emperor of Atlantis

In Terezin, during the summer of 1943, Viktor Ullmann and Petr Kien began collaborating on what was to later emerge as a signature masterpiece of Terezin's musical scene. At the time it was also one of the most controversial. Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis, subtitled Death Abdicates), dared to satirize the political situation of WWII while delivering timeless messages of the power of life and death. Kien, a talented young artist and poet, penned the libretto while veteran composer Ullmann scored the music. From the edited appearance of surviving manuscripts, it seems some aspects of the political allegory were too hot for the "Freizeitgestaltung" to handle. After adequate libretto adjustments were made to appease the Jewish cultural heads, the rehearsal process began in earnest. During a final rehearsal in September of 1944, SS officers happened by the scene and were outraged at what they heard. Any further continuance of the opera's performance was swiftly halted and Der Kaiser von Atlantis was immediately banned. Furthermore, the entire cast, orchestra, Ullmann, Kien, and their families were promptly shipped in a transport to Auschwitz. Only the composition and the singers survived.

The Clever One

Subtitled "the story of the King and the clever woman", Orff's The Cleve One (Die Kluge) has its origins in the tale of a shrewd peasant daughter. Familiar to many different countries, the story comes to us in a variety of guises. Orff based his libretto on the Grimm's Fairy Tales. It premiered in Frankfurt on February 18, 1943. The Clever One is not a fairytale opera in the usual sense: the plot is entirely lacking in supernatural or illogical elements. It shares its farcical ingredients with the old Shrovetide plays, most notably the raw comedy of the vagabonds, the man with the donkey and the man with the mule, and the satirical treatment of the various estates. Structured along the lines of Brecht's didactic plays - sometimes employing a rather antiquated directness, sometimes indulging in cryptic double entendres, but always with pointed poetic wit-this musical comedy resembling a street ballad subsists on the most threadbare of plots. Perhaps that is what prompted Orff to fill out the original material with three vagabonds whose macabre philosophies are presented with an irresistible charm combining Shakespearean wit with the cunning of a traditional German country tale. Worlds apart as they may be, these are two levels of European language and thought which have become established as keys to success in the theatrical context.


The Emperor of Atlantis

"So what are we to drink now? Blood is what we drink now. And what are we to kiss now? The devil's backside!"

The four-scene opera is about 70 minutes long, and begins with Life and Death commenting on a world where existence is no longer satisfying, and death no true release. Then Death decides to break his sword and not permit the unworthy world final release. In Scene Two, the Emperor decides to condemn an attempted assassin, but discovers that execution is not possible, and that his and the enemy's soldiers simply will not die. A Soldier Boy and Girl from opposing sides meet in Scene Three, and discover that they are unable to kill each other. Despite the Drummer Girl's exhortations, they embrace and sing a duet seeing a ray of hope in their adversity. In Scene Four, Harlequin, Death, Loudspeaker, and Soldier Girl meet the Emperor. Death says that dying can only resume if the Emperor is the first candidate. The Emperor agrees. Death then takes him by the hand and, assuming the aura of Hermes, leads him through a magic mirror to annihilation, as the others sing a paean on Death's release to the Lutheran chorale melody, Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is Our God).

The Clever One

Fides is as good as dead. Justitia goes in mortal dread. Pietas lies in the straw. Patientia loser in the strife. Veritas vanished in the sky. Honor, faithfulness and love, good bye!

Tyrannis wallows in excess, Invidia good for a win. Caritas stripped to the skin. Virtue is a vain endeavour. 

A peasant laments that he should have listened to his daughter's advice, otherwise he wouldn't have been imprisoned.

Three tramps complain that times are bad.

The king summons the peasant's wise daughter and offers to free her father and marry her if she can answer three riddles. She did, marries the king and her father is freed.

The tramps discuss the king's latest wife.

The donkey-man appeals to the king for judgment. He fraudulently claims that the king was unjust by giving his foal to the mule-man. In disguise, the wise woman (now the queen) comes to the donkey-man's rescue and promises to help him.

The tramps bribed the jailer to give them the king's wine.

The donkey-man pretends to fish in the marketplace, and when the king questions him, he replies that it is no more odd to fish on dry land than it is to expect donkeys to give birth. The king realizes the wise woman has put him up and orders him thrown in jail.

The king orders his wife to fill chests with what she desires and leave. The wise woman drugs the king's wine so that he falls asleep. (She sings a sweet lullaby to the king.) She leaves the palace with a large chest (actually containing the drugged king.)

On the king's orders, the jailer frees the donkey-man and gives him money.

The wise woman brings the king home in the chest. When he awakens, their love is ignited once again.

About the Composer

Viktor Ullmann

Composer, pianist, choirmaster, conductor and music critic, was one of the victims from among the Prague German Jewish musicians in World War II. He was born on January 1st 1898 in Tesin, where he also began his studies. From 1914 onwards Ullmann lived in Vienna. He probably finished his secondary school studies there also and between 1918 and 1919 he worked for several months in Schonberg s composition classes. From 1920 until 1927 Ullmann was one of Alexander Zemlinsky s assistants in the New German Theatre in Prague (now the State Opera Prague). Artistic collaboration and longtime personal friendship with Zemlinsky, the esteemed head of the Prague German Opera Company, provided Ullmann with a wealth of personal and artistic experiences to draw on in the future. He took advantage of this in the following season, 1927-28, when he was appointed head of the opera company in Usti nad Labem. Together with local and some invited artists, Ullmann managed to stage there a truly impressive repertoire (including operas by Richard Strauss, Krenek and others).

At the tum of the 1920s and 30s he became involved in the anthroposophic movement, his new-found interests taking him to Zurich and later to Stuttgart. But he was forced to leave Germany in 1933 and returned to Prague, embarking on the uneasy road of a freelance musician. He worked with the department of music in Czechoslovak Radio, wrote book and music reviews for various magazines, was employed as a critic for the Prague-based Bohemia newspaper, lectured to educational groups, gave private lessons and was actively involved in the programme of the Czechoslovak Society for Music Education. At about that time Ullmann made friends with the composer Alois Haba, whom he had known for some time. Ullmann enrolled in Haba's department of quarter-tone music at Prague's Conservatoire of Music and studied there for two years (1935-1937).

Up to the first years of the Second World War, Viktor Ullmann was the leading figure in a circle of his Czech and German friends for whom he gave private music performances, chamber concerts or parties where the host played various gramophone records. On September 8th 1942 Viktor Ullmann was deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto. Even in the extremely difficult conditions of a Nazi concentration camp he succeeded in maintaining his artistic activity and together with Karel Ancerl, Rafael Schachter, Gideon Klein, Hans Krasa and others, he wrote a glorious chapter in the camp s cultural Iife. Ullmann was then deported to the Auschwitz death camp, where he died in a gas chamber, probably on October l5th 1944.

Only a part of Viktor Ullmann's work has been found so far. Before the outbreak of the Second World War Ullmann wrote some forty works, mostly orchestral, chamber and piano compositions and two operas. His literary works and approximately twenty fragments of his almost finished or complete compositions written in Theresienstadt have also been preserved. Since the late 1970s Ullmann s music has been enjoying revived interest. His opera from Theresienstadt, written on a libretto by Peter Kien and called Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis) op. 49, has been staged several times since then, as so have Ullmann's piano sonatas, Theresienstadt string quartet and songs. In stylistic terms, Ullmann s early compositions bear traces of Schönberg s influences; his works from the 1930s are polytonal in the classical formal framework, while Mahlerian inspiration is discernible in Ullmann s remarkable songs.

Carl Orff

Orff was born in Munich on July the 10th 1895. He studied at the Munich Academy of Music until 1914. He then served in the military during World War I. Afterwards, he held various positions at opera houses in Mannheim and Darmstadt, later to return to Munich to pursue further his music studies.

As of 1925, and for the rest of his life, Orff was the head of a department and co-founder of the Guenther School for gymnastics, music, and dance in Munich, where he worked with musical beginners. Having constant contact with children, this is where he developed his theories in music education.

Orff's association with the Nazi party has been alleged, but never conclusively established. His Carmina Burana was hugely popular in Nazi Germany after its premiere in Frankfurt in 1937, receiving numerous performances. But the composition with its unfamiliar rhythms was also denounced with racist taunts.

Orff was a personal friend of Kurt Huber, one of the founders of the resistance movement Die Weiße Rose (the White Rose), who was condemned to death by the Volksgerichtshof and executed by the Nazis in 1943. After World War II, Orff claimed that he was a member of the group, and was himself involved in the resistance, but there was no evidence for this other than his own word, and other sources dispute his claim. Canadian historian Michael H. Kater made in earlier writings a particularly strong case that Orff collaborated with Nazi authorities, but in his most recent publication "Composers of the Nazi Era: Eight Portraits" (2000) Kater has taken back his earlier accusations to some extent. Orff's assertion that he had been anti-Nazi during the war was accepted by the American de-nazification authorities, who changed his previous category of "gray unacceptable" to "gray acceptable", enabling him to continue to compose for public presentation.

Orff is most known for Carmina Burana (1937), a "scenic cantata". It is the first of a trilogy that also includes Catulli Carmina and Trionfo di Afrodite. Carmina Burana reflected his interest in medieval German poetry. Together the trilogy is called Trionfi, or "triumphs". The composer described it as the celebration of the triumph of the human spirit through sexual and holistic balance. The work was based on thirteenth-century poetry found in a manuscript dubbed the Codex latinus monacensis found in a Bavarian monastery in 1803 and written by the Goliards; this collection is also known as Carmina Burana. While "modern" in some of his compositional techniques, Orff was able to capture the spirit of the medieval period in this trilogy, with infectious rhythms and easy tonalities. The medieval poems, written in an early form of German and Latin, are often racy, but without descending into smut.

With the success of Carmina Burana, Orff disowned all of his previous works except for Catulli Carmina and the Entrata, which were rewritten until acceptable by Orff. As an historical aside, Carmina Burana is probably the most famous piece of music composed and premiered in Nazi Germany.

About his Antigone (1949), Orff said specifically that it was not an opera, rather a Vertonung, a "musical setting" of the ancient tragedy. The text is an excellent German translation, by Friedrich Hölderlin, of the Sophocles play of the same name. The orchestration relies heavily on the percussion section, and is otherwise fairly simple. It has been labelled by some as minimalistic, which is most adequate in terms of the melodic line. The story of Antigone has a haunting similarity to the history of Sophie Scholl, heroine of the White Rose, and Orff may have been memorializing her in his opera.

Orff's last work, De Temporum Fine Comoedia ("A Play of the End of Time"), had its premiere at the Salzburg music festival on August 20, 1973, performed by Herbert von Karajan and the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. In this highly personal work, Orff presented a mystery play, in which he summarized his view on the end of time, sung in Greek, German, and Latin.

Musica Poetica, which Orff composed with Gunild Keetman, was used as the theme music for Terrence Malick's 1973 film Badlands. Hans Zimmer later reworked this music for his 1993 True Romance score.


Coming Soon.

Chicago Opera Theater

Andreas Mitisek, General Director
70 E. Lake Street Suite 415
Chicago, IL 60601
Box Office: 312.704.8414
Administrative: 312.704.8420

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