Mark Gresham | 30 OCT 2020
The Kaiser of Atlantis is a striking new production from director Tomer Zvulun and his creative team at The Atlanta Opera. The compact but adventurous hour-long show sizzles on stage and speaks directly to our own times. It is also rich in symbols and cultural allusions on many levels.
The seven excellent cast members passionately pull the full weight of their roles, both theatrically and vocally, well-supported by conductor Clinton Smith and his capable ensemble of Atlanta Opera Orchestra musicians.
In this satirically dystopian story of a megalomaniac dictator, all-out war (and in this production, pandemic) that threatens the entire world’s population, Michael Mayes is fiercely emphatic as the isolated and increasingly deranged Emperor Overall. Kevin Burdette dominates much of the show as Death. Alek Shrader adeptly plays his melancholic sidekick, Harlequin. Calvin Griffin as The Loudspeaker and Daniela Mack as the Drummer personify aspects of communication and propaganda while Jasmine Habersham as The Girl and Brian Vu as The Soldier provide an unlikely love interest across wartime enemy lines.
As with the company’s concurrent production of Pagliacci in its open-air Big Tent on the campus of Oglethorpe University, the measures The Atlanta Opera has taken to ensure a safe evening for both the guests and the performers are impressive. It is an inviting outdoor venue for even the most cautious, given the safety measures the company and its team of public health experts have put in place.
The storytelling begins well before the opera itself. Audience members navigate a pandemic safety screening process for entry then pass between a pair of gonfalons which bear the coat of arms of the Empire of Atlantis: a crowned black eagle emblazoned in a circle that’s studded with projecting glycoproteins – like those seen in illustrations of a SARS-CoV-2 cell.
The eagle is reminiscent of the Reichsadler from the heraldry of the old German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, but it’s hard under the circumstances not to also think of the Nazi swastika as displayed in the command flag of the Reichskriegsminister, placed in a circle over the center of black-and-white crossed bars in a red field. The Atlantis insignia also appears as a patch on the military uniforms worn by several of the characters.
As audience approach their seats, they get a closer view of the as-yet-unpopulated stage and set. Most conspicuous are the piles of worn, dusty, empty shoes that are tokens for the dead, which immediately brings to mind those who died in the Holocaust – as did both composer Viktor Ullmann and librettist Petr Kien, who wrote the opera during World War II while interred at Theresienstadt and were subsequently sent to their deaths at Auschwitz.
The next most prominent are the isolation cubes in which some members of the cast sing when not masked. But the overall impression is that the opera is taking place in an abandoned circus tent – or perhaps Atlantis itself is a kind of abandoned circus?
There are the spoken greetings to the audience in advance of the performance, of course, but the real musical prelude into the opera is likewise not a part of the opera itself: Kevin Burdette, as Death, begins humming “Mack the Knife” from Kurt Weill’s Three Penny Opera. Taken alone, out of context, it would be a baffling addition, but the tune was similarly used as an anacrusis for the company’s production of Pagliacci, which is being performed on alternate nights to those of Kaiser. For Pagliacci, the song is sung by Megan Marino, who plays the trouser role of Beppe in that opera. She follows her vocal rendition with a verse played on a melodica.
For Kaiser, Burdette does something more acutely fitting. After his vocal verse, he plays, quite capably, a rather free version on a violin, allowing an old cultural symbolism to kick in, as Death has often been portrayed in Western art, literature and poetry as playing a violin when he comes for souls, as in these lines from Rainer Rilke:
entre dans maisons;
elle cherche la sœur, le père,
et leur joue du violon.
searching for the sister, the father,
and plays to them his violin.
From there we segue directly into the opera itself. The Loudspeaker, attired as a circus ringmaster replete with a megaphone, introduces the the characters. He describes the setting as being “in a world where the living no longer laugh and the dying have forgotten how to die.”
The downtrodden Harlequin sings about how the world has been turned upside down. In such a hollow existence he doesn’t even know what day it is, as every one is just like the other. Harlequin and Death, on quite amiable terms, do a dance about that. Harlequin longs to die in order to end his suffering, because life is so sad and monotonous, but Death, presented in the form an “old soldier” in a white uniform with eyeglasses, reminds Harlequin that he is not to die. “Laughter that mocks itself is immortal,” he declares. Both of these notions, perpetual suffering and immortality, become central to how the drama plays out.
Death also complains how he cannot keep up with the speed and volume of newly deceased caused by mechanized warfare, and how he is no longer honored with the respect due to him. In this light, it appears that Death is not the one who decides who dies, but is the psychopomp who makes possible the final break between a soul and its body, and ends its suffering. (Carl Jung also identified a psychopomp as a mediator between the unconscious and conscious realms.)
The Drummer arrives to announce that Emperor Overall has “in his flawless, all-penetrating wisdom, decided to declare, throughout all lands, a great holy war, each man against the other! … And our old ally, Death, will lead the way with his glorious banner in the name of our great future and his great past.”
Death is thoroughly insulted by this, declaring that he is the only one who can take souls. He then breaks his sword so that no one henceforth will be able to die, and the game is on.
Most often in productions of The Kaiser of Atlantis, The Drummer is portrayed with a military field drum and drumsticks, but in a 2019 Wolf Trap production, she instead has a table-top radio hanging from a strap around her neck, like a cigarette seller’s tray, but still plays it with drumsticks as she makes official proclamations to the public.
However, the word “drummer” has several meanings, and the one that best applies here is an archaic one, but still was in use during Ullmann and Kien’s lifetimes. In that usage, a “drummer” was a salesperson, often door-to-door, known for being persistent in their sales pitches – one who works hard to “drum up” business.
The Drummer, then, is a propagandist; purveyor of the Emperor’s ideology. She is on the one hand the person who speaks it, like the “Axis Sally” of Nazi radio during World War II, broadcasting propaganda in English to Allied troops. More importantly, The Drummer is media itself. In this 21st-century update of the story she is much like the goddess Media in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, who is a personification of mass media, pop culture, fame and entertainment. The Drummer is both controlling and seductive, a kind of dominatrix of the radio, who entices. She wears a military uniform and has a riding crop. She needs no actual drum, nor radio, for she exudes all of media’s power of persuasion and heightened emotion from a position of authority.
The flip side of that same coin is The Loudspeaker. His opening image as a “ringmaster” has double meaning. Having changed into the uniform of a military officer and bureaucrat, it’s the emotionally neutral Loudspeaker who has control of the telephone line by which the isolated Emperor Overall obtains all information about the world outside his bunker. More accurately, The Loudspeaker personifies the telephone and the whole system of restricted information that’s fed to an isolated leader. That makes The Loudspeaker another kind of “ringmaster.”
Unlike The Drummer whose communication is expansive and broadcast to the public, The Loudspeaker narrowly controls all the information that Emperor Overall receives. Just as The Drummer is an analog for media and propaganda, The Loudspeaker is an analog for the the capacity to limit information communicated, and to tailor it to the specific recipient. Today that tailoring is made by artificial intelligence in social media, making it often difficult to know what is truth and what is a marketed placebo.
As a result of accidental meeting, and no one being able to die, The Girl and The Soldier fall in love, though they are supposed to be enemies from different political camps (not quite Romeo and Juliet, but you get the idea). The Drummer is not in favor of this liaison, pushing The Soldier to resume the officially promoted passion for war and the Empire’s ideology.
This is a point where the propaganda fails, because (as Harlequin implied in the first scene) a life of monotony, and inability to die, is not worth living without something like love to intervene and give it meaning. Even Death could sit afar, watch and smile at this, as he conspicuously did in a 2006 production by Teatro Colón.
The most complex and disturbing character in the story is Emperor Overall himself. Mayes goes to great length to take the character beyond a two-dimensional parody of Adolf Hitler (or any other specific infamous dictator) to the larger context of anyone who has found themselves “in charge” of something and obsessed with pursuit of their goal. [Listen to Michael Mayes go into this in detail as part of this audio interview.]
The Emperor ultimately paints himself into a corner in terms of hubris. When he discovers that no one can die from the apocalyptic warfare he has promoted, he turns his propaganda on its head, claiming that the immortality is his own gift to all who follow him and pursue his holy war of total human annihilation.
Overall is at last confronted by Death directly, who informs him that the war is over. He offers the Emperor a deal: He will allow humanity to die again and not suffer, but only if the Emperor goes first. Overall’s response is surprisingly “green and progressive” in the extreme, but in a most negative way, falling in line with other contemporary apocalyptic ideologies which believe that the human race must be eliminated, or at least severely pruned back, for Earth and nature to heal:
The land would stretch in golden ribbons of uncut meadows
Beneath Sun and wind.
The snow settles on the city debris.
The hare and the doe play in the musty ruins.
Alas! If we turned to dust
The forests would grow free, unharmed by man.
There would be no one to halt the roaring of the mighty rivers.
Death comes again, with hunger, love and life!
Sometimes in clouds, sometimes in lightning, but never in murder.
There are different interpretations as to whether Emperor Overall is repentant for his own deadly deeds, or remains defiant in the face of Death. Mayes takes the defiant route when speaking his final line:
The Emperor then dies, allowing everyone else who should have but didn’t to die and find peace. The opera ends with a final hymn to Death, ironically sung by a quartet upon an altered version of the Lutheran chorale tune, “Ein feste Burg” (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”). The emotion hangs in the air well long after the final notes have faded away.
As of this (admittedly voluminous) writing, I have seen videos of four very different productions of The Kaiser of Atlantis, one very poor and amateurish, one that seemed semi-professional but I thought off the mark and not particularly memorable, then two very professional productions mentioned earlier in this text (Wolf Trap and Teatro Colón). In the latter two, there are elements which I liked very much which impressed themselves upon memory, but also aspects for which I had strong negative response.
Having now seen this live production by The Atlanta Opera, I have to honestly say that it stands as my preference among all of them, and not just because it happens to be the hometown team playing. I found it engaging in its performance, convincing in its storytelling, and the most conceptually consistent and satisfying of the lot, even under the restrictive pandemic conditions for both company and audience.
Would I go see this same production again? The short answer is decidedly “Yes.” It was an experience totally worth repeating, not only for quality of its concepts and its execution, but especially for the self-evident artistic and emotional investment by all of those involved in its creation and performance amid our own challenging times. Thanks are due. Go see this production of The Kaiser of Atlantis if you possibly can. ■
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