In his new documentary, ‘The Kaiser of Atlantis’, Argentinian director Sebastián Alfie tells the story of composer Viktor Ullmann’s chamber opera, about a tyrant determined to wage endless war – written in 1943 in the Nazi concentration camp at Theresienstadt (Terezín) – and, more than 70 years later, a new production of the work in Madrid.
Alfie plans to follow ‘The Kaiser of Atlantis’ – which will premiere at the Malaga Film Festival – with a biopic about Ullmann and the two years he spent in prison in Terezín.
The director saw the opera for the first time by chance in 2006 at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. “When I read in the poster that it was written in a concentration camp, questions began to arise that are the seed of the documentary. Is it possible to make music under these circumstances? Were they murdered for the meaning of the work? And most importantly, how come no one knows about this story, a horror story that could well be compared to Anne Frank’s diary?
“The Kaiser of Atlantis” also revolves around composer and conductor Kerry Woodward, who rediscovered Ullmann’s manuscript in the early 1970s and conducted the opera’s first production in Amsterdam in 1975.
The opera tells the story of a mad emperor who sets out to wage universal war until there are no survivors, only to offend death with his bloodthirsty plans. Refusing to participate, Death goes on strike. By refusing to take souls, he offers mankind immortality, undoing the Kaiser’s war of destruction.
Unfortunately, the work found renewed relevance following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“The movie took seven years to finish,” says Alfie. “Less than a week after getting a version released, Putin invaded Ukraine. The “Kaiser of Atlantis” being an opera that anticipates the danger of dictators who drag us into their war plans, 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 assist his plans?
“The message he gives is strong: Beware of using Death’s name lightly. The solution is not more weapons, quite the contrary. Pacifism must play a role in this conflict. Hopefully the documentary will help a little to make it part of the conversation.
Woodward adds: “All war is an abomination. It doesn’t matter if it’s in Europe, the Middle East or the Far East, as seems likely now. All of the wars reflect the great themes of the opera in that they are acts of selfishness perpetrated against peace-loving people of goodwill.
Woodward regards the work as Ullmann’s message of hope, not only to those imprisoned in Terezin, but to all of humanity.
“Just as the Kaiser came to recognize his true self in the mirror he had always refused to look at, if most of humanity could look within themselves and their motives, we could collectively recognize our desire for a world of peace and order.Perhaps then even the selfish could remove the veils that now cover their souls.
Alfie’s film weaves together several narrative threads as it explores the origin of Ullmann’s work in Terezín and his collaboration there with librettist Peter Kien; Woodward’s personal story and his deep connection to Ullman and his work; and the new Madrid production by the late director Gustavo Tambascio and conductor Pedro Halffter (pictured).
There are several strong storylines and each could become a movie in itself, Alfie says. “It’s a very, very powerful story. We worked on the script and the editing for almost three years to put together a solid and fluid structure.
Alfie uses animated sequences throughout the film as part of this structure. “It was an arduous and unique process, but that’s what’s so engaging about this genre.”
He adds: “We had to find a way to illustrate parts of the story that have been lost forever. There are almost no photographic traces of Viktor Ullmann, and animation was a good way to depict 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 in Terezín using pieces of charcoal on the back of Nazi registration forms, a technique which was later used aesthetically 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 deceased composers dictated new musical works to her.
When Woodward told him about Brown, Alfie reacted with skepticism. “A medium that speaks to dead composers? But then I started doing some serious research on her. … Later, Kerry provided us with the recordings of the sessions with her, which ended up convincing us. Rosemary, in the 1970s, could in no way know Ullmann because her life and work had been erased by Nazism. Yet she passed on details of her biography that no one else knew and which later turned out 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 answer questions regarding the composition, which resulted in changes he made to the original score.
“[T]The sheet music was smuggled out of the concentration camp and was dirty, scratched and messy,” Alfie points out. “Ullmann’s responses via Rosemary have proven to be musically accurate.”
“If Bernstein and Kerry believed in her, why not me? The documentary, says Alfie, offers a proposition: each viewer must decide how much credibility they give to the story.
Woodward notes that some of the changes he made were used in other productions but not 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 performance by George Tabori” in London).
“Previously, I had conducted him more than fifty times in various productions of different opera companies in many countries,” he adds. “I was naturally delighted to see the work become an integral part of the operatic repertoire when performed by young professionals, music schools and especially by major opera houses.”
Woodward adds, “I think the context of its creation, the universality of its messages, and the growing public awareness of the Holocaust have made depictions of the work more attainable.”
One of the changes that sets the Madrid production of Tambascio and Halffter apart is 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.
Woodward says: “First of all, Ullmann’s previous opera, ‘Der Sturz des Antichrist’, composed in 1935, performed by the Leipzig Opera last year, was written for a very large orchestra. Second, the roles of “Der Kaiser von Atlantis” were clearly intended for high-caliber professional singers whose vocals would likely have been better supported by an ensemble larger than 13 musicians. Ullmann was probably forced to use the players that were available to him. I was very pleased with Pedro Halffter’s orchestration for the Madrid production and found it really did Ullmann’s music justice.
Woodward continues to work and is currently composing various types of music published by Donemus, a Dutch publishing house for contemporary classical music. Three art videos with music by Woodward were recently shown in The Hague. “In October”, a chamber work, “Hilaritas”, based on ideas by Spinoza, for violin, clarinet, cello and piano, and two melodies for mezzo-soprano and piano by Dutch poets, will be performed.
As for Alfie, last year’s premiere of his Diego Maradona documentary, “Diego: The Last Goodbye,” on HBO Max helped pave the way for new projects that are currently in various stages of development.
“The Kaiser of Atlantis” is produced by Alfie and Angela Álvarez, Sintonía Soluciones, Rosinante, Czech TV and De Productie. Agencia Audiovisual Freak, based in Malaga, represents the film internationally.