Opera Scotland

Emperor of Atlantis The Emperor of Atlantis, or The Refusal to Die; Der Kaiser von Atlantis; oder Die Tod-Verweigerung

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Viktor Ullmann (born Prague, 1 January 1898; died Auschwitz, 18 October 1944).


Peter Kien (died Auschwitz).



Composed Theresienstadt internment camp, c1943.

First Performance: Amsterdam (Bellevue Centre), 16 December 1975.

First Performance in UK: London (Imperial War Museum), 7 May 1985.

First Performance in Scotland: Glasgow (New Athenaeum Theatre), 20 January 2018.



The Emperor of Atlantis (Der Kaiser von Atlantis) is an allegorical satire that was banned by the Nazis, and not performed in the composer's lifetime. It eventually became available in a version edited by Henning Brauel. Musically it seems, not surprisingly, closest to the style of Kurt Weill with a substantial element of Klezmer music added. The introduction of Harlequin does introduce a Straussian flavour, reminiscent of Ariadne. As with Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, the orchestration was dictated by the players who were available in the camp - a string quintet plus guitar and banjo, supplemented by several winds, including alto saxophone, as well as percussion.



Loudspeaker (bass)

Death (baritone)

Harlequin (tenor)

Drummer (mezzo-soprano)

Emperor (baritone)

Bubikopf, a girl with bobbed hair (soprano)

Soldier (tenor)


Plot Summary

The opera is short, under an hour, and made up of four scenes. The Loudspeaker introduces the characters and there follows a debate between Death and Life (represented by the commedia clown figure of Harlequin). It seems that people, even soldiers, have stopped dying. Harlequin himself longs for death, as the current endless setup is horribly tedious. His view is mocked by Death, who claims his situation is much worse, as the rules of warfare seem to have changed. At this point the Drummer announces the Emperor's latest decree - that there must be an all out world war with no survivors. Death is infuriated by this news as it is clearly usurping his own role.

The Emperor follows the progress of the war with increasing unease, as, despite being 'killed' in various violent ways, the soldiers are not actually dying. He alters his decree to grant eternal life instead. A young soldier and a young woman encounter one another during the conflict. She shoots him, but he cannot die. Instead they fall in love despite the Drummer's attempt to lure them back to the conflict.

The Emperor is descending into madness, while Death explains his own role as something like a gardener weeding out those chosen to die. He persuades the Emperor to be the first to try a new style of mortality, at which the people are able to follow, with general death - and happiness - restored.

The Cast

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