Triumph of the spirit

Many artists were held in the Nazi show camp of Terezin. An opera written there is going on tour. By Jessica Duchen

In 1944, the Nazis released a propaganda film entitled The Führer Gives the Jews a City. Terezin, in north-west Bohemia, was the place in question: it had been turned into, supposedly, a show-camp, a smokescreen to blind the world to what was really going on in other concentration camps. The film – an elaborate hoax – showed artistic individuals within Terezin engaging in creative activities, giving concerts and even putting on their own operas. It did not disclose the grimmer reality that more than 50,000 people were crammed into living quarters designed for 7,000, where thousands were dying from starvation and disease.

Much of Prague's Jewish population was deported to Terezin, including a number of brilliant musicians and intellectuals; and, perhaps in a terrible irony, they were indeed able to pursue their creativity with what facilities were available. But after their deaths, the musical achievements of Terezin's inmates, including the composers Viktor Ullmann (right), Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas and Hans Krasa, lay forgotten for decades, until in the 1970s efforts began to be made to rediscover them.

This autumn, English Touring Opera is taking up the cause of one of the most substantial works forged in these extraordinary circumstances: Ullmann's hour-long opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis). In a new production by ETO's artistic director James Conway, and paired with a staged Bach cantata, Christ lag in Todes Banden, it will be seen at the Royal Opera House and then enjoy its first-ever UK nationwide tour.

The libretto is by a gifted young poet Peter Kien, who was also imprisoned in Terezin. It is a black comedy poking fun at a dictator who faces a predicament when Death goes on strike. No prizes for guessing which dictator it satirised. That makes it all the more remarkable that the work reached its dress rehearsal in 1943 before the authorities spotted the nature of its content. Once they did, the performance was cancelled, the opera was banned and those involved were put on the next transport to Auschwitz. Ullmann, and Kien met their deaths there in 1944.

Before Ullmann was forced into his last train journey, he gave the opera's manuscript to a friend, a former philosophy professor, for safekeeping. Yet it was only in 1975 that it was performed for the first time, in Amsterdam. The first British production was at Morley College in 1981.

Ullmann more than deserves wider recognition. Born in 1898 in Teschen, Silesia, he was from a family of Jewish background that had converted to Catholicism; both he and his father served in the First World War, and the young composer's experiences in the conflict between Austria and Italy fed into The Emperor of Atlantis. His output includes many excellent art songs and chamber music, as well as an earlier opera, Fall of the Antichrist.

The music is a fragmented and eclectic mix of cutting-edge contemporary style, jazz influence and pastiche: "It literally goes from Schoenberg to vaudeville in the space of two bars," says the conductor Peter Selwyn, who is at the helm for the tour. "It has moments of extraordinary lyrical beauty. And suddenly the drums come in and you're whisked away into a showpiece number."

The Bach Cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden, has been specially orchestrated for almost the same forces that the Ullmann employs – including the saxophone, but minus the banjo – to unify the two soundworlds. "The Ullmann finishes with a chorale, so the evening will end with a mirror of the way it began," Selwyn points out. "The Bach cantata concerns the triumph of the spirit and of humanity in the face of death and despair. And the triumph of life over death is the message of the chorale at the end of the Ullmann."

"I want the evening to have a consonance about it," says James Conway of ETO who first directed The Emperor of Atlantis some years ago in Ireland. "This opera is a beautiful testimony to the artistic lives of people at Terezin. "

'The Emperor of Atlantis';, English Touring Opera, Royal Opera House Linbury Studio, from 5 October 2012, then on national tour until 3 November. Full tour details at http://englishtouringopera.org.uk/tour-dates/autumn-2012

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living