On Saturday night (February 7), despite fighting a splitting headache, I picked up a friend and headed to the Norman Rothstein Theatre for City Opera Vancouver’s production of The Emperor of Atlantis.
I’m glad I fought off the urge to sit in a darkened room with an ice pack. The piece, a sharp satire of Hitler written in the Nazi transit camp of Theresienstadt, is an incredibly powerful work, a stark reminder of the creative loss that accompanied the loss of humanity that was the Holocaust—its creators were sent to Auschwitz as a result of writing it.
The music, by Viktor Ullmann, conveys a sense of dark absurdity with influences ranging from Arnold Schoenberg (at one time Ullmann’s teacher) and Kurt Weill, to Johann Sebastian Bach. But it was the libretto, written by the 25-year-old Petr Kien, that I found most compelling. Kien’s dialogue is filled with lines that resonate on many levels. When Harlekin says, “I stopped counting the days when I stopped changing my shirt,” it is, on the surface, a funny one-liner—but taken in the context in which it was written, it becomes chilling: how many inmates of concentration camps had a change of clothes?
All members of the cast proved capable actors, with some having stronger voices than others. Bass John Minágro, in particular, was superb as Death, with a commanding presence and rumbling voice.
By the time the profound last words of the piece had been sung: “Thou shalt not take Death’s great name in vain,” my headache had all but gone. My head, no longer throbbing, was left reeling with the enormity of what I had witnessed. Despite City Opera having no budget for publicity, Saturday night’s performance, attended by Mayor Gregor Robertson, was sold out. It wouldn’t surprise me if tonight (February 9) and Wednesday’s (February 11) shows also draw large crowds—and deservedly so.