Photo: Kelly Davidson.
Considering that it was written from within the walls of the Terezin concentration camp, “giddy with excitement” wasn’t exactly on the list of phrases I was expecting to need over the course of this article. But, as I joined the Boston Lyric Opera‘s cast of The Emperor of Atlantis for lunch onstage at the Calderwood pavilion, those three words were about as close as I could come to describing the level of enthusiastic energy crackling amidst the falafel.
“It’s going fantastic!” intones Kevin Burdette, who’s playing the role of Death and the Loudspeaker in Atlantis, as well as the Father in After-Image, a brand-new prologue the BLO commissioned for the work. “Compared to the typical process, we’re ahead of schedule. Having the shape and being able to hone [a piece] is a luxury.”
For want of a better word, the BLO has assembled a veritable supergroup of aria-fiends and vibrato-veterans for this production, pooling well over a century of talent under the artful auspices of acclaimed director David Schweizer. For the cast and crew of Atlantis, it’s a welcome opportunity to give the much neglected satire—in which an exhausted death abdicates in face of the workload of modern warfare—the audience it deserves.
“Outside of a few college performances, productions of Atlantis are fairly rare,” says John Mac Masters, who’ll be taking the stage in the part of Harlequin. “Somebody could live their entire life in this area and never see this piece. It’s an opportunity to make it accessible in a way it simply hasn’t been [before].”
Though it was written and composed in 1943, the first actual performance of Atlantis wouldn’t come until three decades later, as the Nazis saw the titular tyrant as an out-and-out satire of Adolf Hitler and banned the work entirely. Atlantis’ relative newness and flirtation with obscurity provide the cast with a welcome rarity in the world of opera, a chance to really give something form rather than simple trying to measure up to a “definitive production.”
“It’s been an excellent collaborative experience,” continues Mac Masters.
“And nobody’s worried about how they staged it in Prague circa 1834 or anything like that,” adds Burdette.
“Oh, I absolutely agree,” interjects Andrew Wilkowske, who’s filling the title role of the Emperor. “I’ll find myself thinking, ‘Isn’t it a shame that not all productions are like this?’”
With Atlantis’ history steeped in tragedy (both composer Viktor Ullmann and author Peter Kien died in Auschwitz less than a year after its completion) the levity prevalent throughout the work can be surprising, to the say the least. But for this production, that joy is unto itself the driving force:
“There are some performances which are set entirely in a concentration camp. In a way, it’s very limiting to the work to make it only about that context. It’s very sophisticated piece, and it’s very fun.” Says Mac Masters.
“There’s a quote from Schweizer, and I’m not going to do it justice,” chimes in Wilkowske, “but essentially, Ulmann and Kien were able to make this breathtaking work that was so devoid of mournfulness and sorrow that it’s almost transcendental. It’s a celebration of hope and humor.”
Mac Masters sums it up perfectly: “We’re all idealists here. This is an idealistic profession. And this production is about as close to ideal as it gets.”
THE EMPEROR OF ATLANTIS
TUESDAY 2.1.11 TO SUNDAY 2.6.11
BCA CALDERWOOD PAVILION
527 TREMONT ST.,
7:30PM, 3PM SUNDAY/$39-$80