Shoes and toy soldiers:symbolically important in The Kaiser of Atlantis (credit: Felipe Barral)

Review: Atlanta Opera takes “Kaiser” from stage to online cinema

Mark Gresham | 27 JAN 2021 – International Holocaust Remembrance Day

When The Atlanta Opera launched its Spotlight Media platform in December, one of the first trio of its online offerings was the video made from their live Big Tent Series performances of Viktor Ullmann’s dystopian opera, The Kaiser of Atlantis, performed this past fall outdoors on the campus of Oglethorpe University.

I reviewed one of those live performances back in late October, so the objective here is to not repeat that but to make a comparative review of the same production presented as cinema versus live performance.

Each medium has its own advantages and disadvantages, but the real question to be addressed is what does cinema bring to opera that adds artistic value and expressive, communicative power to its presentation?

Consider a similar question which involves setting poetry to music: Does the music bring significant new expressive insights to the poetry that goes beyond what the poetry can deliver on its own? The palin truth is that is easier to set doggerel to music than great poetry due to the latter’s very artistic strength. Bland music that simply “sets” great words for singing does not heighten the experience, but the greater challenge of composing great music that takes great poetry beyond what it can do on its own is as considerable in its power as it is rare.

What then can film or video add that takes an opera beyond the limits of a live stage presentation?


Consider if you will Ingmar Bergman’s brilliant 1975 film version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, made for Swedish television. It is an astounding example of cinematic craft applied to opera. Bergman slyly and carefully walks the tightrope between obvious presentation on the stage of a small parochial opera house and the stage of the mind and imagination. If you haven’t seen this classic, you are strongly urged to make the effort.

Another example for study is Joseph Papp’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance for which there exist a video made from a live stage performance and a subsequent mdea-or-film production where the stage is the cinematic screen itself and all that implies – a path that has numerous examples drawn from musical theater.

Finally, it is worth a reminder that Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors was originally written for television.

Fast forward to October 2020 and The Atlanta Opera’s The Kaiser of Atlantis. The production was designed for live stage but with the intent of a cinematic version already in mind.

Tomer Zvulun, the company’s general and artistic director, originally planned on a professional career as a doctor, wound up as an operatic stage director, but in between aspired to be a film director. It is no surprise, then, that The Atlanta Opera’s productions, especially the big ones mounted at the Cobb Energy Center, often exhibit a certain cinematic influence when directed by Zvulun. So he has a natural mind for transforming a stage production, by whichever path, to video. In the case of the much smaller Kaiser, directed by Zvulun and filmed and edited by Felipe Barral, we have the same opportunity to examine and embrace the comparative relationship between operatic stage and screen.


After a few appropriately busy seconds of animated Atlanta Opera logo, a kind of preamble to the performance of The Kaiser of Atlantis begins with a long shot shot from a vomitory of Oglethorpe University’s Hermance Stadium looking toward the Anderson Baseball Field where the company’s “Big Tent” venue was set up. It then quickly cuts to a series of informal images that one might see walking around the outside of the tent, including the cast in costume happily mingling before a performance, a juggler-clown extra, musicians and additional mid-range and long shots of the venue, all underscored by the chorale music that ends the opera, copied to this preamble. This serves not only as a convenient background for titling and opening credits but also as a “reality check” for the audience: these people are performers who about to take you to a fantasy world for a tale of both poignancy and dark satire.

This is not entirely unlike Bergman’s much longer handling of Mozart’s overture (but without the constant stream of superimposed text) to The Magic Flute, first with the exterior of the venue, then rapid-fire closeups of the audience in anticipation of the curtain rising for the first act. The mingling of the cast in this intro to Kaiser, however, is more like the the Intermission of Bergman’s film, where we see all of the players informally interacting backstage. I can’t say the parallel was intentional, but I throw out for the observer to compare in terms of setting context for storytelling in film.

In the midst of this, a quote from Kurt Weill appears in white lettering against a black background:

“If the boundaries of opera cannot accommodate the theater of the times, then its boundaries must be broken.”

This motto spells out the overarching theme for The Atlanta Opera’s 2020-21 season, begun as it was under pandemic which has required the company, in response, to break the rules in order to survive and mount productions at all, rather than shut down as even the esteemed Metropolitan Opera did.

That intro done, even Ullmann’s opera poised to begin, Zvulun has not yet abandoned Weill as an inspirational thread. The preamble fades to black and segues into a “Prelude” of sorts, where we are introduced in close-up to the character Death (Kevin Burdette) who begins to hum, unaccompanied, Weill’s “Mack the Knife” from The Threepenny Opera – a song which also serves as Prelude the company’s companion fall production of Pagliacci, where it is sung by the character Beppe (mezzo Megan Marino. (Review of the also-filmed Pagliacci is forthcoming in this publication.) This song was used in both the live production as well as the filmed versions of each opera. Thus the ghost of Weill and his aesthetic presides thematically to thos season’s Atlanta Opera’s productions – and aesthetic of necessary change, because much of the old ways will no longer hold in these times.

Death sings a another verse, then plays a rather free-form rendition on the violin (with which a visitation bny Death has long been associated). He then picks up a pair of empty shoes from the front of the stage and puts them on top of the massive pile of shoes which conspicuously populate the set, directly alluding to a haunting exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, that portrays mounds of Holocaust victims’ shoes that were discovered and photographed in 1944 and 1945 by Allied forces at concentration camps such as Janowska, Flossenbürg, Majdanek and Dachau.

Both the composer and librettist of The Kaiser of Atlantis. Viktor Ullmann and Peter Kien, died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. One is immediately impelled to wonder about what became of their shoes, and imagine a similar fate.

Closeup of shoes on the set of The Kaiser of Atlantis, from the online video of The production by Atlanta Opera.production. (credit:Felipe Barral)

Closeup of shoes on the set of The Kaiser of Atlantis, from the online video of The production by Atlanta Opera.production. (credit:Felipe Barral)

Holocaust victims' shoes piled outside a warehouse in Ma Majdanek, Poland, August 1944. (source: Holocaust Encyclopedia)

Holocaust victims’ shoes piled outside a warehouse in Ma Majdanek, Poland, August 1944. (source: Holocaust Encyclopedia)

The shoes are rattling enough, but the closeup shots of them amplify that emotion, just as film and video offers amplification of facial expression.

Are Death’s eyes focused for a brief moment directly on the camera and then to the side to somewhere beyond it? His makeup and black eyeglasses emphasize their riveting appearance. Also, the obligatory mask that Burdette must wear to perform also shifts focus of attention to the eyes rather than the singer’s hidden mouth and nose, emphasizing the eyes even more.

This is something which cannot be seen to this degree of detail in live performance – something in which the camera excels. When he begins singing words to “Mack the Knife” (in German), Death stares directly into the camera – directly at you, the viewer. The camera is obliged to be first to blink, to cut away instead of Death shifting his gaze somewhere else. Death wins this game of willpower.

On final note of this prelude: When Death places the retrieved pair of shoes on top of the pile, he places them next to a group of small plastic toy soldiers – you know, the kind that were highly popular with small boys during the 1950s and ’60s for playing “war” on the kitchen table. Hold that important image on your mind’s back burner for the duration, if you will.

The opera’s Prologue begins, and the Loudspeaker (Calvin Griffin), attired initially as a circus ringmaster, later as a uniformed military bureaucrat, announces then show and introduces the characters, including himself: the isolated and increasingly deranged Emperor Overall (Michael Mayes), Death, himself, the melancholic Harlequin (Alek Shrader), the propagandist Drummer (Daniela Mack),The Girl (Jasmine Habersham) and the Soldier (Brian Vu).

Slideshow:The cast of The Kaiser of Atlantis, images from dress rehearsal images for live performances in Fall 2020.

No special difference between impact of live and video experience there, except for the clarity with which we are able to see the presented characters. Four of the characters who have their own plastic “pods” within which they can sing without masks (Loudspeaker, drummer, Emperor Overall and the Girl). They are more easily seen within those pods in the video than in live performance because Barrel and his camera could avoid the worst reflections of light off the clear plastic by taking up a best viewing position, which seated audience members could not, though he could not avoid all reflective glare. Points scored for the camera, in any case.

As the jumped into Scene One I became more aware of some things things in the film, even though clearly observable in live performance. Shrader’s Harlequin is much closer kin to Emmett Kelly’s hapless circus tramp “Weary Willie” than the traditional commedia dell’arte harlequin which persisted into the very early 20th century. (Check out the “Rose Period” paintings of harlequins by Pablo Picasso, prior to his cubist ventures.)

This first scene, features a lament by Harlequin, that ends when Death throws a shoe at him from just below view of the camera. Death joins Harlequin on stage nd the ensuing song and dance between them is the most pure “fun” of the opera. Here the camera reveals some more important detail of acting while wearing a mask which covers the expressive visual tools of mouth and nose. Schrader makes use of big, rounded pantomime movements to communicate his meaning, a staple technique of professional clowning. Burdette parodies Schrader in their duet and kick dance. Death has some fun, and why not? In this opera, Death is not a purveyor of doom who decides who will die, but a psychopomp who releases relieves souls from their suffering and guides them to their final rest.

This review is stretching very long at this point, so I want to move away from the scene-by-scene sequence, because I believe we have enough examples in hand of several points Iwant to make:

  • the ability to use cinematic mediums to easily establish a larger storytelling context in which an opera can be viewed, citing other films as well as the example from this one.
  • the ability of the camera to show detail of action, expression and symbolism at a degree of intimacy unavailable on the live stage, and to amplify them.
  • the ability to take the audience off the physical stage and toward the stage of the mind.
  • the ability to take viewpont through the camera lens that cannot necessarily be seen by an audience, including instances of breaking the fourth wall through the camera lens as if to a specific observer rather than audience as a whole.

To this last point we already mentioned the early examples of Death briefly staring directly into the lens; of Death throwing a shoe at Harlequin from just under the observer’s field of vision. But also, later on in the film, a chaotic scene in which Harlequin frantically rushes the camera, then careens off in another direction – another way of playing with the fourth wall.

Likewise The Soldier, now as deserter from the army, is shown in a clip as if interviewed by an on-location news reporter – except more elegant filming than a news crew might actually produce. It might have been interesting to have given the clip more of that newsy look and feel, but that also may have proved inconsistent with Barrel’s overall visual style.

For the opera’s concluding chorale honoring Death, Ullmann used the Lutheran chorale tune “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”) adapted into triple meter. And yet the tone of this conclusion to the opera is unlike that hymn’s message of triumph over evil, and more like another Lutheran chorale, “Komm süßer Tod” — witness it’s first verse, in German and in English translation:

Komm süßer Tod, komm selge Ruh!
Komm, führe mich in Friede,
weil ich der Welt bin müde,
komm, ich wart auf dich,
komm bald und führe mich,
drück mir die Augen zu.
Komm selge Ruh!

Come, sweet death, come blissful rest!
Come lead me into peace,
for I am weary of the world,
come, I wait for you,
come soon and guide me,
close my eyes.
Come blissful rest!

It is this kind of atmosphere that the four chorale singers – The Girl, The Drummer, The Loudspeaker and even the “immortal” Harlequin – willingly give their shoes, which are symbolic of the departure of their souls (after all, shoes have soles). Careful observers will also note the brief, subtle exchange of looks as Harlequin hands his shoes to Death. It is only a moment, but moving. I had to rewind and look again several times. (And of course you cannot rewind a live performance. If you miss it, you miss it.)

As Death collects and adds theirs to the myriad of shoes already piled up, we clearly see on video something else significant that was difficult to see in the live performance because below the sightline of most audience: Death has to remove Kaiser Overall’s boots from his feet, taking them rather than accepting them from a willing giver. The Kaiser remains defiant, even beyond death.

Death has, of course, the film’s final gesture, again one that’s only easily seen on video: At the top of the shoe pile is that group of toy soldiers we first saw in the beginning, before the opera during “Mack the Knife.” When Death finishes collecting the shoes, he begins to move one of the soldiers, then decides to push them all over and off the board.

It’s this kind of symbolic visual detail that only the filmed production can deliver with sufficient power to the viewer, compensating in its own way for what it lacks of the irreplaceable human immediacy that live performance offers.

In the end, howver, each means of performance has its own unique merits. We simply have to play to the strengths of whatever medium we happen to be using as a performer, director, producer or videographer. Each presents their opportunities for creating great art. ■

Editor’s note: Mark Gresham’s review of The Atlanta Opera’s live production of “The Kaiser of Atlantis” can be found here.

Mark Gresham is a an American composer and music journalist. He is publisher and principal writer of EarRelevant.