Built in 1780 to honor Austro-Hungarian Empress Maria Theresa, the fortress Terezin was designed to prevent Prussian invasions. Today Terezin, perhaps better known by its German name Theresienstadt, is surrounded by forbidding ramparts on a desolate plain an hour's drive north of Prague. But in November 1941, the town had been converted by the occupying Germans into a Jewish ghetto holding a population 10 times its intended capacity.
Nazi propagandists used Terezin's "model city" -- which included a building used for musical events -- to camouflage the town's true purpose. It was a holding station for its Jewish population, who were destined eventually for Auschwitz.
For composer, conductor and critic Viktor Ullmann and many other musicians, the Germans' ruse allowed them to live longer merely by plying their trade. Despite starvation, epidemics, overcrowding and death, they composed and performed classical music works in Terezin.
To mark this centennial year of Ullmann's birth, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Austrian Embassy will jointly sponsor a performance of his chamber opera "The Emperor of Atlantis, or Death's Refusal," which he wrote while incarcerated at Terezin. A production of the opera by the Austrian ensemble ARBOS will be given its U.S. premiere next Sunday at the museum under the artistic direction of Herbert Gantschacher. The ARBOS version, first performed in Prague in 1993, returns to what Gantschacher believes is Ullmann's original concept with its modest assembly of strings, winds, guitar, and accordion -- a difficult task of reconstruction since parts of Ullmann's vocal and instrumental scores exist only as sketches.
When he was 11, Ullmann and his family moved from a small town on today's Czech-Polish border to Vienna, where he studied law as well as composition with Arnold Schoenberg and piano with the virtuoso Edward Steuermann. After a volunteer stint with the Austrian Army in World War I, Ullmann became assistant conductor of Prague's New German Theater. Until the Nazis outlawed concerts of music by Jewish composers, major works by Ullmann had found their way to the con cert halls of Prague, Vienna, London, and other European cities.
On Sept. 8, 1942, the Nazis deported Ullmann with his third wife, Elisabeth, to Terezin. (His ex-wife Annie and son Max were already there.) A little more than two years later, in the wake of D-Day and other Allied victories, the Nazis abruptly shipped the composer, Elisabeth, Annie, Max, his librettist Petr Kien, and many other musicians of Terezin to Auschwitz.
But Ullmann had already entrusted his "Emperor" scores to Emil Utitz, the town's librarian. The 24 other works Ullmann wrote in Terezin vanished along with many of his earlier compositions. Only 42 of his 75 known compositions have survived, including only two of his five operas.
Cast as a modern-day parable in the vein of Plato's dialogues of analogy, "The Emperor of Atlantis" tells a sardonic allegorical tale. The piece depicts an ironic confrontation between life with all its beauty (and Death as the liberator of its pain) and the Emperor Over-All, who represents humanity's callousness. Echoing Greek myths, with their universal overtones of inscrutable fate, and characterized by quasi-biblical language and melancholic cynicism, the opera's four tight Kafkaesque scenes hinge on Death's refusal to act when Emperor Over-All commands him to commit universal genocide by destroying the universe. (The Emperor's sobriquet is a transparent allusion to "Deutschland Ueber Alles," Nazi Germany's national anthem.) Thickening the dehumanized Orwellian gloom, impersonal Loudspeakers (mimicking Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels) deliver the despot's ultimatum. But Death, refusing to act, forces the entire world to remain alive in a state of perennial suffering, enveloped in cosmic hate. Death offers to resume his customary role only if the Emperor agrees to die first.
Though far from a mere pastiche, Ullmann's score memorializes reworked musical themes from the Czech nationalist music of Dvorak's student Josef Suk, works of Brahms, Mahler, Bach and Mendelssohn, and tunes from German and Croatian folklore -- all incorporated within his own ideas. The music of this nightmarish parody has the precision of Schoenberg and the bluish tinges of Kurt Weill cabaret. While Ullmann relied on the traditional operatic format of arias, recitative, spoken dialogue and instrumental interludes, "The Emperor of Atlantis" is pervaded with expressionist foreboding frozen in oppressive stasis.
In retrospect, Ullmann's self-destructing 20th-century Atlantis testifies unflinchingly to the ultimate triumph of those Holocaust victims intent on leaving posterity a record of their tragedy. "The Emperor of Atlantis" will be performed at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Nov. 8 at 3 p.m.; for information, call 202-488-0427. CAPTION: Viktor Ullmann's librettist, Petr Kien, made this drawing of an opera performance in the Jewish ghetto of Terezin. ec CAPTION: A scene from the chamber opera "The Emperor of Atlantis, or Death's Refusal," which will be performed next Sunday at the Holocaust Museum. ec