Show goes on: Rice Opera’s first virtual performance is ‘Der Kaiser von Atlantis’

COVID-19 has taken a toll on performance venues, many of which have gone dark for the foreseeable future. Professional musicians and students alike are looking for new ways to share their craft with the public, even as a new study from Rice suggests keeping musicians safe on stage may require more than just social distancing.

While the pandemic may present less-than-ideal circumstances for new Shepherd School of Music director of opera studies Miah Im, she resolutely believes the show must go on.

The Shepherd School’s Opera Department and Chamber Orchestra will present their first-ever virtual opera, “Der Kaiser von Atlantis,” Oct. 29 and 30 at 7:30 p.m., with stage direction by Pat Diamond. Jerry Hou, the Shepherd School’s associate conductor, directs the orchestra for the opera, which will be sung in German with English subtitles. Translations are provided by Kim Witman by arrangement with Wolf Trap Opera.

“It was important to me during these extreme circumstances to create a project that would be meaningful, carry musical significance and be emotionally poignant at the same time for my students,” Im said. “I knew ‘Der Kaiser von Atlantis’ would be the perfect opera to accomplish this initiative.”

The one-act opera includes seven performers and begins by introducing Death, portrayed as an old soldier proud of his dignified work. Then he meets the Emperor Overall, who declares war and commands Death to fulfill his work without considering what Death has to say about the plans. Death is outraged and resigns from his role. Soon, even the most gravely wounded and critically ill are denied Death’s relief. At long last, Death appears to the disturbed Emperor Overall and demands the emperor’s life as the price of taking up his role again.

The moral of the opera, which is revealed at the end in the Bach-like chorale, Im said, is that death should never be taken in vain.

“The character of Death reminds us that death not only brings rest to those experiencing unbearable suffering, but also that death serves a needed and at times desirable purpose as a natural source of relief and healing,” she said.

“Der Kaiser von Atlantis” (translated “The Emperor of Atlantis”), the only opera written by Viktor Ullmann, was completed in 1943 and includes a libretto by Jewish poet Peter Kien. It is a prime example of the musical resistance that took place in Theresienstadt ghetto during World War II.

“Theresienstadt was a place where a false sense of normalcy was kept; so much so that during a visit in 1944, even the International Red Cross delegation was fooled by the Nazi propaganda,” Im said.

Although the opera was rehearsed in Theresienstadt in 1944, it was never performed during Ullmann and Kien’s lifetime due to censorship within the ghetto and because Nazi soldiers realized the character of Der Kaiser was a mockery of Adolf Hitler. The creators were sent to Auschwitz and killed, but not before Ullmann ensured the opera’s survival by secretly giving it to Theresienstadt’s librarian, Emil Utitz, for safe keeping. He passed it along to another survivor of the camp, and 30 years later its world premiere was performed by the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam in 1975.

“Its very existence is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit,” Im said.

Diamond said the production is an appropriate choice given our unsettled world.

Fall 2020 Virtual Opera: "Der Kaiser von Atlantis"

“Given the dire situation that the authors found themselves in, I think that it was absolutely essential to be able to laugh, it was absolutely essential to be able to create something that had culture to it, that was musical, that fed the soul,” he said. “And I think that this spirit of doing this piece in this moment, in this building, despite all of the limitations and restrictions that we’re experiencing, is very much in partnering with the spirit of the piece.”

The Rice Opera Department staff and performers took all the necessary COVID-19 safety precautions during rehearsals and the video recording process, wearing face coverings, practicing social distancing and being tested for the disease regularly. The orchestra’s 15 musicians recorded their music separately. The opera performers were recorded Oct. 9 and 10. Swagger Film and projection designer S. Katy Tucker are handling production of the final video.

To further enhance viewers’ experience, Im conceived the idea of using a 24-by-62-foot green screen on stage in the Lucian and Nancy Morrison Theater and a process known as Chromadepth to produce 3D-like effects for the backdrops. The effects can be viewed with simple prism 3D glasses, although the opera can be enjoyed without them, Im said.

Im said creating the virtual opera has been a “labor of love” but “incredibly gratifying.”

“I’m very fortunate in that we have one of the best schools in the country,” she said. “I have incredible students who are willing to put in the hard work. It’s a phenomenal cast and I think this has been a very enriching and rewarding experience for them.”

Registration is required for the virtual viewing on the Shepherd School’s YouTube channel. To sign up, visit https://music.rice.edu/departments-and-ensembles/opera/2020-2021-opera-season.

Disclaimer: Chromadepth effects viewed through the prism 3D glasses may potentially trigger seizures for people with photosensitive epilepsy. Viewer discretion is advised. The production is made possible by arrangement with European American Music Distributors Company, sole U.S. and Canadian agent for Schott Music GmbH & Co. KG, Mainz, Germany, publisher and copyright owner.

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.