Music ReviewsOperaREVIEWSREVIEWS BYTom Williams

The Emperor of Atlantis & The Clever One


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The Emperor of Atlantis & The Clever One

The Emperor of Atlantis

by Vicktor Ullmann

A play in one act by Peter Kien, Op. 49

English translation by Sonja Lyndon

Conductor Francesco Miloto

Stage Director Andreas Mitsek

Gallows humor fuels concentration cam opera.

Viktor Ullman’s The Emperor of Atlantis was created in the showcase concentration camp at Terezin (Theresienstadt) in 1943. Designed to both give strength and hope to camp inmates as well as poke at their captures, The Emperor of Atlantis is a satire on fascism. The Emperor Overall (Andrew Wilkowske) declares war on everyone amidst a group of comical characters finding  the guy playing Death (David Govertsen) going on strike as he retires from his duty. This opera sure contains muck dark humorous situations but the bleak background that clearly evokes a concentration camp atmosphere dilutes the humor as it honors the bravery (or foolhardiness) of the inmate producers. Once the Nazi camp officials understood what the real meaning of the opera was, they cancelled the opera after one preview and sent its composer Viktor Ullimann to Auschwitz where he died in 1944.


Both the staging and the singing here was somber yet worthy. Bernard Holcomb’s tenor voice was terrific as well as Andrew Wilkowske’s baritone sounded fine. Ullmann’s music utilized the musicians on hand that was modern and whimsical  mixing cabaret, blues and jazz with hints of Kurt Weill with generous use of banjo, guitar and alto sax with, of course, strings.  Hints of Bach chorale and German anthems could be heard also. This dark piece was sung in English. The craft and the bravery of the creatives made this piece more impressive.


The Clever One

By Carl Orff

Libretto by Carl Orff

Conductor Francesco Miloto

Stage Director Andreas Mitsek

Ambitious German fairy tale mildly pokes fun at leadership

From a Brother’s Grimm fairy tale about a shrewd peasant daughter who save her father, marries the king and proceeds to dupe and control him, The Clever One was written by Nazi appeaser , composer Carl Oriff in 1943 in Frankfurt, Germany.  This ambitious work is a combination of German vaudeville with overtones of Brecht with loads of dialogue and ample use of a group of drunken vagabonds: William  Dwyer, Paul Corona and Matthan Ring Black who comment upon all the faults of the kingdom including the hypocrite king and the foibles of society.

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Several performances standout here: Emily Birsan as the Clever Once and Andrew Wilkowske as the King. But the use of large paper roles and the terrific use of lighting, reach screen projection and the players drawing figures including windows , doors, flowers and trees was exciting and innovative (designed by Sean Cawelti).

The Clever One, sung in English was a mixture of German vaudeville, with loads of dialogue with ample singing that mildly poked fun at German society and leadership works as a creative operatic piece. The pacing at times made the show drag but the overall qualities and voices with the  physical humor made for a pleasant piece.

While both pieces, in their own way, were interesting. well sung and staged, The Clever One was more ambitious yet The Emperor of Atlantis was darker and more powerful. These seldom performed works are worthy of an audience as they are both historical as well as creative modern fairy tales rich in satire.


Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: May 31, 2014

At the Merle Reskin Theatre, 60 E. Balboa, Chicago, IL, call 312-704-8414,, tickets $35 – $125, Wed, June 4, Friday, June 6 at 7:30 pm, Sunday, June 8 at 3pm, running time is 2 hours, 30 minutes with intermission, through June 8, 2104

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