Viktor Ullmann’s “The Emperor of Atlantis” and Carl Orff’s “The Clever One” Review – Not To Be Missed

Hurry, hurry to get tickets, that is.  There are only three more chances to see Chicago Opera Theatre’s current production, a double bill of two one act operas, which you won’t want to miss.  These operas are wonderful on their own, but even better in contrast to one another. “The Emperor of Atlantis” (“Der Kaiser von Atlantis”) by Viktor Ullmann and “The Clever One” (“Die Kluge”) by Carl Orff are two satires about oppression and dictatorship both written in 1943, but looking at the world through different lenses. English translation makes both of these works more accessible. The Merle Reskin Theatre of DePaul University (60 E. Balbo) is the perfect venue, providing an intimacy needed for the staging of this production.


Written from within the walls of the Nazi concentration camp, Theresienstadt, Ullmann’s work, “The Emperor of Atlantis,” is a satire on fascism, set in Atlantis where Emperor Overall advocates total war against everyone and Death retires from his duties. The score contains musical quotations ranging from blues to the German National Anthem, "Deutschland ueber Alles," performed in the style of a Bach chorale. In this work, I found the orchestral music quite beautiful, while the singing and the words were abstract and not as compelling.  Costuming and staging were wonderful.


In contrast, and what a contrast, the fairytale opera “The Clever One,” by Carl Orff, best known for his perennial favorite “Carmina Burana,” tells of a foolish, tyrannical king being bested by a clever woman, a folktale found in many cultures. The composer also wrote his own libretto, based on “Die Kluge Bauerntochter” “The Peasant's Wise Daughter” from the also well-known “Grimm's Fairy Tales.”  Musical threads harkened to “Carmina Burana,” and the staging, lighting, singing, dancing and story telling were fascinating and very energetic, and altogether a wonderful experience.


“COT’s pairing emphasizes the political struggle inherent in these two pieces which, despite the circumstances in which they were written, both remain markedly comical and effortlessly satirical,” said Andreas Mitisek, Chicago Opera Theater Music Director. “It is extraordinary that such impressive works were created in times of such great repression and terror, and it is a testaments to the power of art that such innovative operas can be created in such and environment.”


Both operas are under the direction of Andreas Mitisek and are conducted by Francesco Milioto. The ensemble cast of the two productions includes Emily Birsan; Matthan Ring BlackPaul Corona; William Dwyer; Neil Edwards; David Govertsen; Bernard Holcomb; Christopher RemmelCassidy Smith and Andrew Wilkowske.

Theback-story of “The Emperor of Atlantis” is so powerful, it needs to be shared and it makes the opportunity of seeing this production that much more meaningful and poignant. Born on January 1, 1898 in Tesin, Czech Republic, Viktor Ullman, a composer, pianist, choirmaster, conductor and music critic, was one of the victims from the Prague German Jewish musicians’ group in World War II. “The four-scene, 70-minute opera, begins with Life and Death commenting on a world where existence is no longer satisfying, and death no true release. In Terezin, during the summer of 1943, Viktor Ullmann and Petr Kien began collaborating on what was to later emerge as a signature masterpiece of Terezin's musical scene. At the time it was also one of the most controversial. “The Emperor of Atlantis,” subtitled “Death Abdicates,” dared to satirize the political situation of World War II while delivering timeless messages of the power of life and death. Kien, a talented young artist and poet, penned the libretto while veteran composer Ullmann scored the music. During a final rehearsal in September of 1944, SS officers overheard a rehearsal and were outraged by what they heard. The opera’s production was immediately ended and “The Emperor of Atlantis” was banned. The entire cast, orchestra, Ullmann, Kien and their families were promptly shipped to Auschwitz. Only the composition survived.”

Carl Orff was born in Munich on July 10, 1895. He studied at the Munich Academy of Music until 1914. After serving in the military during World War I, he held various positions at opera houses in Mannheim and Darmstadt, later to return to Munich to further pursue his music studies. Subtitled "The Story of the King and the Clever Woman," Orff's “The Clever One” originates from the tale of a shrewd peasant daughter. Orff based his libretto on a Grimm's Fairy Tale, premiering in Frankfurt on February 18, 1943. Structured along the lines of Brecht’s didactic plays, “The Clever One” is not a fairytale opera in the usual sense as the plot is entirely lacking in supernatural or illogical elements.  The COS staging of this opera was absolutely remarkable. The orchestra was fabulous as were the special lighting (David Lee Bradke) and other special effects.

Ticket Information
”The Emperor of Atlantis” and ”The Clever One” are playing at the Merle Reskin Theatre of DePaul University (60 E. Balbo) Tickets are priced from $45 - $125 and can be purchased by calling 312.704.8414 or via Chicago Opera Theater website The total running time is two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission.
Performance Schedule
·         Wednesday, June 4, 7:30 p.m.
·         Friday, June 6, 7:30 p.m.
·         Sunday, June 8, 3 p.m.
About Chicago Opera Theater
Chicago Opera Theater (COT) is an innovative, nationally recognized opera company that inspires a diverse community through immersive and thought-provoking opera experiences. COT, established in 1974 by Alan Stone, is a founding resident company of the Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Millennium Park. New General Director Andreas Mitisek is known for his adventurous repertory, visionary leadership, fundraising skills, and innovative audience-building initiatives.

Chicago Opera Theater has carved a significant place for itself in the operatic life of Chicago and has reached an audience of hundreds of thousands through its main stage performances, community engagement, education programs in Chicago Public Schools, as well as its renowned Young Artist Program. (See More)

Experience MORE OF THE DIFFERENT with Chicago Opera Theater!
For more information on the Chicago Opera Theater and its programs please visit the Chicago Opera Theater website


Photo Credit: Corey DiNardo

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