Performance | Opera in the Terezín Concentration Camp | Modern Era | Opera
‘The only thing worth emphasizing is that Theresienstadt has not hampered my musical activity, but actually encouraged it and supported it.’ The final entry in Viktor Ullmann’s journal referred to ‘Theresienstadt’, the town of Terezín, 60 kilometres northeast of Prague, which was remote enough for the Nazis to pursue their barbarism in relative seclusion. Yet within the walls of the camp grew a small underground artists’ colony. The Nazis did not condone the ‘cultural life’ that emerged in the ghetto, but they were also aware that it greatly reduced the chances of insurrection while serving as a useful propaganda tool that would mask their true intent.
Written by Ullmann and librettist Petr Kien, Der Kaiser von Atlantis (‘The Emperor of Atlantis’, 1943) is a biting political satire rather than an opera. Scored for seven singers and 13 instrumentalists, it is considered one of the most important works to emerge from the camp. Nevertheless, its subject matter also ensured that it was never performed at Terezín. (The premiere took place in 1975, conducted by Kerry Woodward, and it was later recorded for Decca’s exceptional survey of Entartete Musik). Music and visual art abounded within the camp confines, and it is a testament to the doomed artists’ creativity and strength of will that, in the face of extreme oppression, they produced work that spoke not just of pain but also of profound beauty.
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