Last Updated on January 25, 2022
The BBC presents Der Kaiser Von Atlantis & Quartet For The End Of Time
BBC Total Immersion Day, 23 January 2022 at the Barbican, London was a remarkable exercise to showcase music from the ghettos and camps of Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II. We went along for two of the works; the BBC Symphony Orchestra performed and recorded Viktor Ullman’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis, followed by a performance of Oliver Messiaen’s Music for the End of Time by students from the Guildhall School of Music. Both works were composed in concentration camps during the Second World War and this segment will be broadcast at 7.30 pm on 11 March by BBC Radio 3. It was a timely and moving performance with International Day of Commemoration being held on 27 January in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.
Viktor Ullman’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis is a one-act political satire opera in which Death goes on strike, thwarting the emperor’s plans to maintain his power through endless war. Written in Theresienstadt, the original saw concentration camp inmates perform, using whatever instruments were at hand and drew on styles ranging from jazz and cabaret to Lutheran chorales and grand Czech symphonies. Der Kaiser was quickly quashed when the Nazis saw their own leader in its critique of a petty despot. The production at the Barbican was obviously a lot fancier than the concentration camp version with a superb music hall, symphony orchestra and English subtitle-ing to boot.
The opera starts with a presentation of characters before Harlekin, played by Benjamin Hulett, laments a life without laughter or love. Death, played by Henry Waddington, belittles Harlekin’s wish to die by comparing his own dire situation where the traditional craft of dying has been replaced with the motorized chariots of war, resulting in exhaustive work with little satisfaction.
Hanna Hip embodies the drummer girl announcing the latest decree of Kaiser Overall, where everyone will be armed and fight until there are no survivors. To this, Henry Waddington’s Death denounces the Emperor for usurping his role of taking lives and goes on strike in a dramatic moment.
In his palace, Kaiser Overall portrayed by Thomas Johannes Meyer learns of a terrorist who continues to live eighty minutes after being hung. Amidst the direness of the situation, this provided a brief comical relief where the frustration of the Kaiser was jocularly juxtaposed against his successive orders for different ways of killing the terrorist and the placating repetition that death will come soon. Of course, the audience knows that by this point, Death has gone on strike.
The loudspeaker, played by Derrick Ballard, now announces that thousands of soldiers are wrestling with life and doing their best to die without success. This prompts a now desperate Kaiser Overall to proclaim that he has rewarded his loyal subjects with eternal life, in a bid to cling on to his power. Meanwhile, a soldier portrayed by Oliver Johnston and a maiden played by Soraya Mafi confront each other as enemies but turn their thoughts to love once they realize that they are unable to kill each other. It is a delicate anthem of hope, beautifully sung and most likely touched the hearts of everyone in the concert hall.
As Kaiser Overall sees his subjects protesting over being in limbo between life and death, he ponders whether he is still a man or trying to be God and asks Death to resume his duties. Death proposes that Kaiser Overall be the first to try the ‘new death’. As the Kaiser sings his farewell, so do his subjects in a closing chorus. This final scene was very emotional as it signified the acceptance of all involved that Death was coming for them and that they welcomed him with open arms.
After a brief interval, we were treated by the Guildhall School Musicians to Quartet for the End of Time, written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in a labour camp. Apparently, it is supposed to be an intimate expression of awe, a prophetic collective scream and a delirious dance all at once.
The music is intensely lyrical overall and definitely communicated feelings of joy and ecstasy with sections of severe anguish to the point where I was squirming in my seat desperately hoping for a distraction so that I don’t have to feel the intensity of the emotion. It was quite jarring to hear tones portraying paradisal serenity alternating with what seemed like an impending apocalypse, but I think that an emotional rollercoaster was the aim of the piece. The piece was exquisitely played by the quartet, and the degree of technical proficiency was impressive against the backdrop of the emotional intensity of the piece. This is not for the faint-hearted though as it will definitely captivate your emotions.
Looking for something different? We are excited by the upcoming production of Theodora at the Royal Opera House