New life for death-camp opera
Director Thomas de Mallet Burgess, left, Kristin Bowtell, Richard Symons, Corinne Cowling, Daniel Sumego, Linda Barcan and Chris Van Tuinen. Picture: Iain Gillespie/WA News.

It is a curious fact that literary and music activity often occurs in captivity.

John Bunyan famously wrote his Pilgrim's Progress while in jail and French composer Olivier Messiaen produced his Quartet for the End of Time while a POW in a German stalag.

But the most extraordinary musical creativity imaginable took place in Theresienstadt concentration camp where, among many others, the nazis incarcerated - and murdered - almost an entire generation of Jewish musicians, both performers and composers, most of whom died in Theresienstadt or were transported to Auschwitz to be killed in its gas chambers.

So abundant was the creativity in Theresienstadt that a roster had to be drawn up to accommodate the demand for the camp's only piano - an ancient battered upright - with each musician allowed 30 minutes at the keyboard per day.

Among these musicians was prolific Slovakian composer Viktor Ullmann who in 1943 wrote a chamber opera The Emperor of Atlantis (or The Disobedience of Death) in Theresienstadt with librettist Peter Kien. Its intended performance was vetoed by his jailers because the work lampooned Hitler. The two men later died at Auschwitz.

The opera was not performed publicly until 1975 in Amsterdam, with later productions in Stuttgart, Bremen, San Francisco Opera, London's Imperial War Museum, Melbourne and on BBC TV.

Perth's Lost and Found Opera, run by director Thomas de Mallett Burgess and musical director Chris van Tuinen, is devoted to staging neglected, under-performed "lost" operas in unusual or "found" venues. Earlier this year Lost and Found staged Poulenc's rarely heard The Human Voice, the one-sided account of a romance break-up, with a soprano singing into the telephone in a Perth hotel room for an audience of 13.

The Emperor of Atlantis will have its Perth premiere next week at the Perth Hebrew Congregation Synagogue in Menora - the historical resonances and themes of life and death suited to the metaphysics of a religious building.

"It's too good to go unheard in Perth," says van Tuinen, who was inspired by the determination to create an opera in Theresienstadt's horrific environment. "It is beautiful, romantic and expressive, reminiscent of Mahler and Brahms."

In the opera, an emperor (a thinly disguised Hitler) decides to wage war on the universe but this is frustrated when Death, goes on strike in protest. Mayhem ensues as soldiers fall in love with their enemies and the war ends. But without Death, life has no meaning so the emperor agrees that Death ought to get back to work. Death demands that the Emperor is the first to die. Then there's a hymn to celebrate life.

This production will have particular resonance for bass baritone Daniel Sumegi whose late grandfather was an Auschwitz survivor. About 10 to 12 Holocaust survivors remain living in Perth, according to Rina Hesselson from the Holocaust Institute.

"I'm keeping as focused as possible on the role, which is new to me, and not allowing anything to detract from that focus," he says.

Ullmann's opera will play out on the synagogue bimah with a 13-strong instrumental ensemble (led by Shaun Lee Chen) positioned in the choir loft. Van Tuinen has worked with Opera Australia and Lyric Opera in Melbourne.

"Opera is where my career began and I've conducted several dozen different productions," he says.

The Emperor of Atlantis will be performed on June 12, 15 and 16 at Perth Hebrew Congregation Synagogue, Freedman Road, Menora. Tickets: trybooking. com/77554.

The West Australian

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