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Music Notes: beauty behind barbed wire

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Rhoda Levine first learned about The Emperor of Atlantis, an opera written in the Nazi concentration camp of Theresienstadt, in the summer of 1973 while on a directing gig in France. A friend put her in touch with a young British choral conductor named Kerry Woodward, who had recently been given a manuscript of the hour-long opera, long thought to have been lost. "A camp survivor entrusted him with it, hoping the opera would finally be performed," she recalls. "I saw for myself a bit later that parts of the score were typed on the back of entrance forms to the camp. So-and-so's preferred religion: Unitarian; real religion: Judaism; where to send: away. That meant death, of course. It was all very horrific."

Theresienstadt, about 30 miles north of Prague, was intended by the Nazis as a showcase to placate the International Red Cross. Inmates--many of them leading intellectuals and artists from central Europe--were encouraged to pursue an active cultural life, even though they realized their days were numbered. "That was a grim sham, to be sure," says Levine. "Yet the outpouring of creativity was remarkable." Composer Viktor Ullmann, who was in his early 40s and on the brink of a brilliant career when he was sent to the camp from Prague, had studied with Schoenberg and the German Marxist composer Hanns Eisler. And librettist Petr Kien, though less than half Ullmann's age, was already a painter of note. At Theresienstadt, theirs was one of the many artistic partnerships that blossomed in adversity.

"They must have worked on the opera on and off for two years," says Levine, who was asked to direct its world premiere for the Netherlands Opera in 1975. "And in early 1944, when it was ready for performance, the camp's commandants found out what it was about and immediately banned it." Later that year, Ullmann and Kien were sent to Auschwitz, where they died in the gas chambers. "Their offense was to make fun of Hitler, making him an impotent tyrant," Levine explains.

The Emperor of Atlantis is a sly and biting allegory about a mad dictator who becomes powerless when death takes a holiday. "It's inflammatory stuff," she says, "but meant to be both satirical entertainment and resigned consolation for the camp prisoners trapped in that macabre landscape and surely cognizant of their fate. The hymn that ends the opera is sung to 'A Mighty Fortress Is Our God'--a final prayer." Musically the opera has been compared to Kurt Weill for its sardonic posturing and to Stravinsky for its jaunty syncopation. "I think it's closer to the style of Eisler, Ullmann's mentor, than anyone else's," says Levine. "Ironic yet poignant. I'm no musicologist, but I find the music extremely sophisticated. There are veiled quotes from Schubert, Dvorak, and Jewish tunes, which the camp's audience would have readily recognized."

The Amsterdam premiere was directed by Levine on a desolate barrack set; many productions of The Emperor of Atlantis have since been mounted in other parts of the world. This weekend the Chicago Opera Theater has invited Levine to stage a revival of the original production as part of a triple bill that kicks off the company's 25th anniversary. "It's still the opera closest to my heart. I was partly responsible for its discovery," she says, "and now I'm a messenger of the defiant spirit of its creators."

Now in her 50s, Levine started her career as a dancer and choreographer, but in the mid-1960s, during a stay at the Spoleto Festival in Italy, composer Gian Carlo Menotti and director Luchino Visconti noticed her knack for theatricality and convinced her to switch to directing opera. "It was one of the best decisions I've made," she says.

Since then she's carved out a reputation as a midwife for difficult, complicated projects, overseeing such premieres as Anthony Davis's X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X at the New York City Opera and Bruce Saylor's Orpheus Descending at the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists. Her first assignment here was with the Chicago Opera Theater a decade ago, an austere production of Gluck's Orfeo that featured Louise Nevelson's sculptures. Levine has also written eight children's books, one of which was adapted into an opera by Luciano Berio. She currently teaches at a number of colleges, including Northwestern.

Levine is proud of her crusading ways. "Don't forget to mention that I staged the first Porgy and Bess in South Africa two years ago," she says. "With a native cast. I have this affinity for disenfranchised communities."

The Emperor of Atlantis will be presented by the Chicago Opera Theater in tandem with two other short works: Lee Hoiby's Bon Appetit!, a concoction in tribute to Julia Child, and Henry Mollicone's The Face on the Barroom Floor, a fanciful tale inspired by a celebrated saloon in the American west. "The One-Hour Opera Festival" is performed Friday at 6:30 and 8, Sunday at 1:30 and 3, and Thursday and Saturday, June 13, at 6:30 and 8. It's at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport. Tickets cost $25 to $55; call 773-292-7578.

--Ted Shen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Rhoda Levine photo by Eugene Zakusilo.

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