In his new documentary, “The Kaiser of Atlantis,” Argentine director Sebastián Alfie tells the story of composer Viktor Ullmann’s chamber opera, about a tyrant bent on waging endless war – written in 1943 in the Nazi concentration camp of Theresienstadt (Terezín) – and, more than 70 years later, a new production of the work in Madrid.
Alfie plans to follow up “The Kaiser of Atlantis” — which premieres at the Malaga Festival — with a biopic about Ullmann and the two years he spent imprisoned in Terezín.
The director first saw the opera by chance in 2006 at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. “When I read in the playbill that it had been written in a concentration camp, questions began to arise that are the germ of the documentary. Is it possible to make music in those circumstances? Were they murdered for the meaning of the work? And the most important, how is it that no one knows this story, a testimony of horror that could well be compared to the diary of Anne Frank?”
“The Kaiser of Atlantis” also revolves around composer and conductor Kerry Woodward, who rediscovered Ullmann’s manuscript in the early 1970s and conducted the first production of the opera in Amsterdam in 1975.
The opera tells the tale of mad emperor who sets out to wage universal war until there are no survivors, only to offend Death with his blood-thirsty plans. Refusing to take part, Death goes on strike. By declining to take souls, he provides humanity with immortality, nullifying the Kaiser’s war of destruction.
The work has sadly gained renewed relevance in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“The film took seven years to finish,” says Alfie. “Within a week of getting to a broadcast version, Putin invaded Ukraine. As the ‘Kaiser of Atlantis’ is an opera that anticipates the danger of dictators who drag us into their plans for war, it is fascinating to see it again in the light of what is happening today in Eastern Europe. It is prescient. This opera asks us the question: What would become of tyrants if they could not kill? If death refused to second his plans?
“The message it gives is strong: Beware of using the name of Death lightly. The solution is not more weapons, but quite the opposite. Pacifism must play a role in this conflict. Hopefully the documentary will contribute a little to make it part of the conversation.”
Woodward adds: “All war is an abomination. It matters not whether it is in Europe, the Middle East or the Far East, as seems likely now. All wars reflect the major themes of the opera in that they are acts of selfishness perpetrated against peace loving people of good will.”
Woodward sees the work as Ullmann’s message of hope, not only to those imprisoned in Terezin, but also to all of humankind.
“Just as the Kaiser eventually came to recognize his true self in the mirror he had always refused to look at, if most of humankind could look into itself and its motivations, we might collectively recognize our longing for a world of peace and order. Perhaps then, even the selfish might remove the veils that presently cover their souls.”
Alfie’s film weaves together several narrative strands as its explores the origin of Ullmann’s work in Terezín and his collaboration there with librettist Peter Kien; Woodward’s own personal story and deep connection to Ullman and his work; and the new production in Madrid by late stage director Gustavo Tambascio and conductor Pedro Halffter (pictured).
There are several strong plot lines and each could feasibly become a film in itself, says Alfie. “It is a very, very powerful story. We worked on the script and editing for almost three years to put together a solid, flowing structure.”
Alfie uses animated sequences throughout the film as part of that structure. “It was an arduous and unique process, but that’s what’s so engaging about this genre.”
He adds: “We had to find some way to illustrate parts of the story that have been lost forever. There is almost no photographic record of Viktor Ullmann, and animation was a good way of representing his biography.”
The film has a lot of music and the animation “accompanies the operatic passages with great efficiency,” he adds. Alfie found inspiration for the animated sequences in actual drawings made by prisoners at Terezín using pieces of charcoal on the back of Nazi registration forms, a technique that was then aesthetically used by the film’s animators.
Boldly going in a mystical direction, Alfie also recounts Woodward’s connection to the late spiritualist Rosemary Brown, an English composer and pianist who claimed that dead composers dictated new musical works to her.
When Woodward told him about Brown, Alfie reacted with skepticism. “A medium that talks to dead composers? But then I started seriously researching her. … Later, Kerry provided the recordings of the sessions with her, which ended up convincing us. Rosemary, in the 1970s, could not have know Ullmann in any way as his life and work had been erased by Nazism. Yet she conveyed details of his biography that no one else knew and that were later revealed to be true.”
Alfie notes that a number of renowned composers at the time had consulted Brown, among them Leonard Bernstein.
Woodward maintains that he was able to connect with Ullmann through Brown, and in doing so was able to address questions regarding the composition, resulting in changes he made to the original score.
“[T]he sheet music was smuggled out of the concentration camp and was dirty, scratched out and messy,” Alfie points out. “Ullmann’s responses via Rosemary proved to be musically accurate.”
“If Bernstein and Kerry believed in her, why shouldn’t I?” The documentary, Alfie says, offers a proposal: Each viewer should decide the degree of credibility they grant the story.
Woodward notes that some of the changes he made have been used in other productions but not in the Madrid production.
“The Kaiser of Atlantis” has accompanied Woodward for much of his life, although he hasn’t conducted a performance of the work since the 1990s (when he performed it with the Vienna Kammeroper “in an outstanding interpretation by George Tabori” in London).
“Previously I had conducted it more than fifty times in various productions by different opera companies in many countries,” he adds. “I have naturally been thrilled to see the work become a regular part of the opera repertoire when performed by young professionals, music colleges and especially by the major opera houses.”
Woodward adds: “I think that the background to its creation, the universality of its messages and the increasing public awareness of the Holocaust has made performances of the work more feasible.”
One of the changes that set Tambascio and Halffter’s Madrid production apart was the decision to adapt it for 70 instruments. As written in the confines of Terezín, it was originally conceived as a minimalist work for a limited number of instruments.
Says Woodward: “Firstly, Ullmann’s previous opera, ‘Der Sturz des Antichrist,’ composed in 1935, performed by Leipzig Opera last year, was scored for a very large orchestra. Secondly, the roles of ‘Der Kaiser von Atlantis’ were clearly intended for high-caliber, professional singers whose voices would probably have been better supported by a larger ensemble than 13 players. Ullmann was probably forced to use the players who were available to him. I was very satisfied with Pedro Halffter’s orchestration for the Madrid production and felt it did real justice to Ullmann’s music.”
Woodward continues to work and is currently composing various kinds of music published by Donemus, a Dutch publishing house for contemporary classical music. Three art videos with Woodward’s music were recently shown in The Hague. “In October”, a chamber work, ‘Hilaritas,” based on ideas of Spinoza, for violin, clarinet, cello and piano, and two songs for mezzo-soprano and piano by Dutch poets, will be performed.
As for Alfie, the premiere last year of his Diego Maradona documentary, “Diego: The Last Goodbye,” on HBO Max has helped pave the way to new projects that are currently in different stages of development.
“The Kaiser of Atlantis” is produced by Alfie and Angela Álvarez, Sintonía Media, Rosinante, Czech TV and De Productie. Malaga-based Agencia Audiovisual Freak is representing the film internationally.