In June 1940 the Gestapo took control of Terezín, an abandoned fort in the Czech Republic. By the end of November it had been turned into a ghetto, holding hundreds of thousands of Jews. Those who survived its horrendous conditions waited there to be transported to their deaths at Auschwitz and Treblinka extermination camps. Two of the inmates were composer Viktor Ullmann, and librettist Peter Kien who collaborated in 1943 to write an opera – The Emperor of Atlantis. It was never performed during their lifetime. Nazi authorities banned the opera after the dress rehearsal in Terezín. Both Ullmann and Kien died at Auschwitz before the end of the war.
Intrigued by the circumstances of its composition, I have slipped into rehearsals to get an insight into the opera. What effect would its history have on the show and what sort of music could such a place produce? But Ullmann’s score is not a self-conscious response to the holocaust. Instead it is an opera about life and death. On one level it is political – using characters which represent different aspects of European history (for example the cold blooded Kaiser and a Harlequin, representing the fading decadence of the Weimar Republic). This all sounds pretty enigmatic, but for director James Conway these politics are of secondary importance. For him, the power of the opera comes from the eloquent discussions of human life veiled by music he describes as ‘ravishingly beautiful’.
So despite my preconceptions, it was not the political implications of the opera which led rehearsals. The focus is on the lyrical poetry of the score as a response to the circumstances of its composition. What is taking shape, therefore, is a playfully theatrical show in which “Death” goes on strike because there is too much killing: ‘The living have forgotten how to laugh and the dying how to die’.
This for Conway represents the crux of the opera and the connection with life in Terezín concentration camp – they are stuck in the hellish limbo of the living dead. Both composer and character are waiting to die. What we are seeing is an image of death conjured from a horrifically unusual position. But this is in no way a self-pitying show. Using moments of touching sincerity, black comedy and even showbiz, it celebrates the natural cycle of life and death.
This is a celebration of human spirit in the face of the horror of war. And so I turn back to my research and start to read about the spirit within the Jewish ghettos, rather than the history of them. The music, literature and cultural activities which, against all odds, came out of Terezín were remarkable. One survivor described life in the ghetto: ‘We were dancing under the scaffold, but we were still dancing’. It is amazing what solace music can bring.
At the end of today’s rehearsal Kyrie Feltham, deputy stage manager of the show, gave me her thoughts on the opera: ‘It is amazing that all those people rehearsed Ullman’s opera in a concentration camp. The music and the hope that it brought probably helped to keep them alive, and it is life-affirming to think that we are continuing their work’.
Rebecca Hanbury is an aspiring director, recent graduate of Bristol University, and an intern at ETO.