Garde stages World War II opera that defied the odds

New London — Connecticut Lyric Opera's staging Thursday night of "The Emperor of Atlantis" at the Garde Arts Center may have seemed spare, with a hat rack, desk and bench pretty much summing up the austere ambiance that the singers inhabited.

But the barrenness seemed appropriate considering the background of the opera itself, written in 1943 by Viktor Ullman as he and its first ensemble of singers awaited death in Theresienstadt, a German concentration camp. Strangely, the Jewish prisoners had been given a reprieve in the so-called "artists camp" so the Nazis could put on a show for the International Red Cross proving the so-called "benevolence" of their murderous regime.

The irony of their situation could hardly have been lost on the Jewish prisoners, who had to pretend they were happy even as they feared their own deaths. And the fact that the character Death plays the lead role in the opera certainly shows they were aware that their ability to be creative under the Nazis was truly just playing for time.

But this opera showed they were not crippled by fear; in fact, they met the unknown head-on by insisting that death could not take away their humanity. It was, as the artists saw it, the very essence of humanity — what we fight against, yet which informs everything beautiful in human nature.

"We just saw an act of defiance" is how Jerry Fischer, the former executive director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut, put it during a commentary directly after the performance, attended by perhaps 150 people.

He noted that the opera angered the Germans, who correctly saw that the bloodless emperor was likely a parody of Hitler. Everyone associated with the show, never performed at Theresienstadt, subsequently was taken to Auschwitz and killed.

As Garde managing director Steve Sigel said in the Holocaust commentary segment onstage after the show, it's hard to imagine how many creative geniuses had their lives terminated as a result of the Jewish genocide.

"We have no idea what great music, what great visual arts were lost," he said.

Sigel, whose parents survived the Holocaust, tied the loss of these artists to the fear of the different and unknown; the fear of diversity. He said artists of many genres have been labeled "degenerate," from rock 'n' roll to hip hop, only to eventually find their work embraced by the mainstream, which becomes richer for it.

"The voices of the oppressed," he said, "should never be subdued."

The performance, made possible through a National Endowment for the Arts grant, was Connecticut Lyric Opera's third this year of the English-language version of "Atlantis." CLO, which performed the opera two years ago in Tel Aviv with the Israeli Chamber Orchestra, has one more show on tap Sunday in Fall River, Mass., its first performance ever in Massachusetts.

The original German manuscripts of "Atlantis" were saved from the concentration camp by a fellow prisoner of Ullmann's who survived the Holocaust, but a reconstructed version wasn't performed until the 1970s. It is rarely performed in the United States, partly because it is not a full-scale opera, running less than an hour.

But the performance Thursday was powerful, particularly the moving final scene in which Steve Fredericks as Death winds up as a kind of antihero. "Teach us to keep your holiest law," the chorus sings, "thou shalt not use the name of Death in vain now and forever!" Fredericks, with his dark bass tone, proved the perfect eminence grise in both voice and mannerism.

Other cast members who stood out included Robert Garner as the Emperor and Daniel Kamalic as Harlekin, the sad joker. Kamalic had the best movement ability in the cast, and Garner's rich baritone could reach to the balcony and beyond.

As usual, the Connecticut Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, ably directed by Adrian Sylveen, nearly stole the show despite a pared-down group of just over a dozen musicians.

To top it off, the Garde audience made time to view an exhibition in the mezzanine titled "Art in the Holocaust," reprinted with permission of the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel, that honored visual artists who chronicled the genocide and in many cases were doomed to be a part of it. The exhibit is expected to be donated to a local Jewish organization at the end of the "Atlantis" run, said John Waller, a founder of the CLO.

As with the opera performed Thursday, "The people didn't survive, but the art did," Waller said.

l.howard@theday.com

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