Eastman Opera Theatre presents intriguing double bill 

Life and death

Patrick Graham (pictured) is one of 12 singers playing two roles in Eastman Opera Theatre’s double bill of “Mahagonny Songspiel” and “Der Kaiser von Atlantis.” - PHOTO BY MICHELLE MARTORELL
  • Patrick Graham (pictured) is one of 12 singers playing two roles in Eastman Opera Theatre’s double bill of “Mahagonny Songspiel” and “Der Kaiser von Atlantis.”
For the last several years, Eastman Opera Theatre’s annual fall production in the intimate space of Kilbourn Hall has been a consistent source of compelling chamber opera for Rochester audiences. This year, the troupe’s recipe for success varies slightly with a double bill of one-act works, which were created in unusual and harrowing contexts, respectively.

From November 7 through 10, EOT’s Associate Artistic Director Stephen Carr leads a dual production of composer Kurt Weill’s pre-World War II cantata “Mahagonny Songspiel” and Viktor Ullmann’s “Der Kaiser von Atlantis” — written while the composer was a prisoner of the Nazis at the Terezín concentration camp.

Featuring the poetry of German playwright Bertolt Brecht, Weill’s “Mahagonny Songspiel” is a plotless song cycle about people who, while living in an idealistic city where freedom supposedly reigns, indulge recklessly in greed, sex, and alcohol. At first, this overt critique of capitalism seems like an odd pairing with Ullmann’s opera, itself a bold indictment of fascism.

In the German-language chamber opera “Der Kaiser von Atlantis,” also known as “The Emperor of Atlantis” or “Death Abdicates,” a power-crazed and bloodthirsty dictator calls on Death itself to assist him in his war against the entire world. Death refuses the Emperor and instead makes it so that humans are no longer able to die.

The two works both require six performers, which enables the student singers in Eastman’s two different casts to portray separate characters that simultaneously contrast and complement one another. For example, the singer portraying God in “Mahagonny” returns as Death in “Der Kaiser.”

Though each work has a distinctive approach to plot, in both dramas the characters find themselves in a kind of limbo between life and death, a purgatory that arises when a society (or a leader) presumes moral authority. Carr sees the one-acts’ differences as complementary.

“To me the Ullmann almost felt like an answer to the Weill in some ways, because the Weill is very determined to not give any answers,” Carr says. “‘All of that resolution you expect from theater, all of that narrative storytellling, that happy ending: We’re not going to give that to you, right?’ But Ullmann, I think, is more about coming to peace somehow with the insanity of what was going on around him.”

Ullmann co-wrote “Der Kaiser von Atlantis” with librettist Peter Kien in 1943 while in Nazi captivity, and though the opera was rehearsed at the Terezín camp, it was forbidden to be performed there. Tragically, the two creators were killed at Auschwitz before it was ever staged. The opera finally had its premiere in Amsterdam in 1975.

Soprano Rachel Kobernick, who plays the soldier “Bubikopf” in “Der Kaiser,” says the Jewish composer’s experience during World War II is inextricable from the opera.

“Even if we’re not necessarily looking at 'Kaiser' from the perspective of the Holocaust, it’s impossible to deny that it was written in that environment,” Kobernick says. “And so then, when you look at it from that perspective, you can pull out all of these elements from it, and be like, ‘Why is Ullmann saying death must win? What did that mean to him, and then therefore, what does that mean to our characters?’”

Beyond the narrative, Ullmann embedded messages in the music itself. The opera opens by referencing well-known funeral music by composer Josef Suk, before additionally quoting Haydn, Mahler, Wagner, and Bach. Ullmann may have quoted composers that were held in high esteem by the Third Reich as a way to both undercut its message and demonstrate his own connection to that musical tradition, Music Director Wilson Southerland says.

While Ullmann was defiant in his art, Weill and Brecht’s “Mahagonny Songspiel” was subversive in its own way. Commissioned in 1927 by a chamber music festival in Baden-Baden with a reputation as a home for high art, Weill responded with a vocal work that utilized the language of popular music, and when premiered, looked a lot like interactive experimental theater. The set was staged as a boxing ring, and a gun was fired to announce the start of the performance.

“That creative spark was all about being provocative.” Carr says, “And that’s where that whole concept of epic theater, Brecht’s ideas of epic theater, met Weill’s love of all these new musical idioms of jazz that were equally jarring.”

This idiosyncratic style required a different approach from Southerland’s musicians. “Instrumentation itself is indicative of the style,” he says. “In my rehearsals with the orchestra, I encourage them to bring all of the technical chops, things that Eastman students have, and now let’s make it a little dirtier. Let’s inhabit the style.”

“Mahagonny Songspiel” is written in both German and English, a choice that makes sense because its themes take shots both at German society at the time of the Weimar Republic and at America’s identity as a “shining city on a hill,” Carr says.

Because the composition is ostensibly a song cycle, there is no explicit storyline and no obvious way to stage it. But Carr found clues in the text to inspire a theme with current-day implications.

“‘Mahagonny’ doesn’t really have a story per se, because it’s not an opera,” Carr says. “But the songs together sort of tell the story of people setting out, looking for a better life. So as I was sitting with both of these pieces, immigration is the topic that is being vividly discussed right now in our society. And both of these pieces, to me, seem to speak to that.”

With design by Charles Murdock Lucas, both one-act works are set in a location that resembles Ellis Island. In the first half of the performance, “Mahagonny” has a clear 1920’s aesthetic, while in the second half, “Der Kaiser” takes place a few centuries into the future, once sea levels have risen to extremes.

As with all Eastman Opera Theatre productions, each of the roles are double-cast, with two sets of students alternating each performance.

Eastman Opera Theatre presents "Mahagonny Songspiel" and "Der Kaiser von Atlantis" Thursday, November 7 through Saturday, November 9, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, November 10, at 2 p.m. , at Eastman School of Music's Kilbourn Hall, 26 Gibbs Street. $26 general admission; $10 students. 274-3000. eastmantheatre.org.
Southerland will give a talk one hour prior to each performance in the Ray Wright Room (room 120).

Stay tuned for a review of the performance, to be published Friday, November 8, here at rochestercitynewspaper.com.

Daniel J. Kushner is CITY's music editor. He can be reached at [email protected].

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