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‘Atlantis’ by way of Auschwitz

February 4, 2011

Published by Metro

Viktor Ullmann and Peter Kien wrote “The Emperor of Atlantis” while prisoners at an Auschwitz concentration camp in 1943. Neither survived to see it performed.

Despite its roots, the opera is not a mournful “holocaust story,” says David Schweizer, director of the Boston Lyric Opera’s production of the show.

“It’s actually quite the opposite,” he explains. “It’s a seat-of-the-pants, folktale meets clown show.”

In the satirical opera, a ruthless emperor orders everyone killed. But Death, enraged by this presumptuous mandate, refuses to comply. The plot, clearly a comment on dictatorship and oppression, enraged Nazi authorities in the ’40s.

The ultimately uplifting script seems an unlikely byproduct of the composers’ cruel surroundings.

“We’re celebrating the resourcefulness of these artists, of their spirit in concocting a piece this humorous and provocative,” says Schweizer. “I try to think about that every day while we’re rehearsing.”

Boston theatergoers, even opera aficionados, are unlikely to have seen “The Emperor” before, because it’s rarely performed. This is the first time it has been fully staged in New England by a major opera company.

Untraditional venue

» “The Emperor of Atlantis” is performed in Calderwood Pavilion, an intimate venue that’s untraditional by opera standards. The show’s creators take advantage of the theatrical atmosphere.
» “The space is in a state of transformation,” says Schweizer.

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