On Friday, the Atlanta Opera’s new production of “The Kaiser of Atlantis” opened with a softly lilting German lullaby. After humming to himself, Death (bass Kevin Burdette) sang the first phrase of “Mack the Knife” at a tentative pace. This serenade prologue mirrored Thursday night’s staging of “Pagliacci,” when Megan Marino voiced the song in English.
The tune links the two hourlong offerings in the Atlanta Opera’s Molly Blank Big Tent Series, which are presented on alternating nights through Nov. 14 on the baseball field at Oglethorpe University. “Kaiser,” composed in a concentration camp in the 1940s, would seem to be a world away from the 19th-century Italian opera “Pagliacci.” As a duet, the operas harmoniously explore loss and death.
Composer Viktor Ullmann wrote the music for “Kaiser” while living in the Nazi ghetto Theresienstadt. As seen in the propaganda film “Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt,” the camp was used by the Nazis to showcase fair treatment of Jews. Art could flourish there, they said, although Ullmann’s work was not permitted to be performed. In reality, Theresienstadt was a way station to death camps like Auschwitz, where Ullmann died in 1944.
“Kaiser” carries the incredible weight of Ullmann’s imprisonment. Accompanied by dissonant, angular music, he tells of a plague that only causes suffering, not death. Death has gone on strike. It’s a direct response to Emperor Overall (baritone Michael Mayes), who demands that Death bend to his will by leading the nation into an endless war. The Drummer (mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack) is the emperor’s mouthpiece, keeping the Girl (soprano Jasmine Habersham) and the Soldier (tenor Brian Vu) in line; the two of them fall in love anyway, choosing companionship over war. In a nod to pandemic realities, the opera is set in an abandoned circus tent; centerstage, a mountain of discarded shoes represents the departed.
Strict COVID-19 precautionary protocols, including audience masking and social distancing, are in place. On Thursday, these procedures designed to keep the audience, cast and crew safe seemed like a hindrance to overcome. The lead sang from within a plastic booth-like enclosure; the supporting cast wandered around wearing masks — this all worked up to a point. In “Kaiser,” which begs for an experimental presentation, the constraints seemed completely normal; this was avant-garde theater done well.
Credit: Courtesy of Ken Howard
Credit: Courtesy of Ken Howard
As on Thursday, when the singers projected through masks, their voices came out slightly muffled. In fact, the character Harlequin (tenor Alek Shrader) wore a clownish face covering that made it hard to know when he was singing. But these were two minor quibbles. Among the singers, Mack and Habersham excelled. Mack embodied the character of the overbearing authority figure, an extension of the emperor, singing disjunct lines with an edge of fury. While Habersham had a small part, her arias showcased an expansive, clarion voice. As Death, Burdette carried the show.
Performing from a separate tent and piped in through speakers, guest conductor Clinton Smith’s chamber orchestra used silence as a powerful musical device. Lush symphonic ensembles suffer when reduced due to pandemic concerns, but “Kaiser’s” sparse orchestration fits the tent well.
The opera closed with a beautiful chorale — masked characters joined together to honor Death, pledging to no longer speak his name in vain. While Ullmann was writing about war against a fascist enemy, his message resonates amid the pandemic. This week, the U.S. reached a grim milestone in suffering: more than 84,000 coronavirus cases diagnosed in a single day.
“The Kaiser of Atlantis”
7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday; Nov. 4, 6, 8, 12, 14.
$149-$399 for a pod of 4.
Hermance Stadium at Oglethorpe University, 4484 Peachtree Road NE, Brookhaven. 404-881-8885, atlantaopera.org.