Maybe opera is like the cliché about chocolate: addictive for some; for others, one of those guilty pleasures. Safe, the tried and true tends to prevail: silly, sentimental plots with lush music to sooth the audience, to assure them that all is well, that they are where they belong, and, as Robert Browning put it, that “God’s in his heaven—All’s right with the world!” For profundity, grand gods, myth, and—in the past at least—famously fat sopranos, go see Wagner, although his work does have its soft white underbelly. Holding the typical casual anti-Semitic views of 19th century Europe, later in life Wagner was apparently seduced by the racialist theories of Gobineau; and some say his Parsifal reflects this. Hitler, who loved Wagner, appropriated the latter’s work as a perfect expression of the [Nazi] heroic while Russian critic Walter Benjamin, on the other hand, simply accused Wagner of separating art from its social context. Yes; but-oh-the-music! Oh, the chocolate.
Leaving my mountain fastness this November on my semi-annual trek to the Old Country, the last thing on my mind was getting side-winded at the Met, having to sit through some operatic old chestnut. A dear friend had invited me, though she said ahead of time that it would be a Juilliard performance—two one-act operas, blessedly short. Indeed, the first had two acts and a prologue: Les Mamelles de Tirésias was a fluffy opéra bouffe that satirized the post-WWII efforts of France to compensate for population loss. Music by Poulenc, libretto based on a play by Apollinaire. However, the second, Der Kaiser von Atlantis, was the one I haven’t been able to get out of my head.
One tends to expect harmony, symmetry, even ease from operatic performances; and, when the form is filled with the opposite, the observer is hard put to remain snug in their seat. I do not necessarily mean musically. The music in this second opera was not the operatic equivalent of a free jazz piece by Cecil Taylor; rather, the genius of its musicality is that it seamlessly appropriates and combines the classical and the popular, music of all kinds. What a tragedy that it’s composer did not survive. For Der Kaiser, consisting of a prologue and four scenes, was written in Theresienstadt (Terezin,) a combined Czech town and prison camp as well as a bizarre part of the Nazi death machine. Theresienstadt was no picnic, though used as a model to deceive western observers—a “ghetto,” the Reich said, not another tool in the “final solution.” Look, they write plays, perform operas! They have little shops.1 As non-Jews were evacuated from the town, Theresienstadt worked its inmates to death on inadequate rations, imprisoned some and tortured them; many died there and many were sent off to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Nonetheless, Der Kaiser, with music by Victor Ullmann and libretto by Peter Klein (both of whom died in the camp2) is not an exposé. Nonetheless, though it went into rehearsal, it was not allowed to be performed; the allegory—with a major character named Kaiser Overall—was too much for prison administrators to swallow.
Once upon a time, there was a mad, murderous Emperor ... At Julliard, Der Kaiser‘s actors, costumed in a combination of inmate striped pajamas and bits of German army cast-offs, performed against a claustrophobic 1930’s, clinically dull stage set. As the piece opened, Harlequin appeared, mourning that no one laughs at him any more, that he misses wine, women, sensuality—in brief, that he is bored. Death, a retired soldier, complains back3, noting that Harlequin is “only 300 years old,” whereas he has been here “since the world began.” He pleads the creaky limbs of old age that cannot keep up with the new “mechanized chariots of war” and gripes that, as an old animal put out to pasture, “new angels of death” are coming to replace him. In musical reverie he goes on to mourn “the good old days,” expatiating on the colorful uniforms, flamboyant banners flying, the beautiful soldiers clutching their sweethearts tightly to them before battle: “We had such beautiful wars then!” he laments, “I was the old-fashioned craftsman of dying.”
One cannot help but think of the coming of Modernism—cottage industries replaced by factories, hand tools replaced by newfangled gadgets, identical and standardized “products” coming off the assembly line, and now, death modernized, mechanized, standardized and mass produced (by the Nazis). There is no longer any craft to death, no satisfaction; death claims no authorship and has become impersonal, merely the unfolding of an anonymous “system.” At this point, enter the Drummer Girl/Kaiser’s herald to announce that “We”—the royal we of Kaiser Overall—”have decided on an all-out Holy War, each against the other—no survivors—” to begin throughout the Empire. Everyone must carry weapons, and “We” will eradicate all evil forces. Then—here’s the kicker—”our old ally, Death, shall lead the way with his glorious banner.” At this, Death becomes furious: he, (K.O.) is mocking me. “To take men’s souls is my job, not his,” Death rants. “That little twit!” That is the last straw; Death goes on strike.
As soldiers, the accused, and the ‘collaterally damaged’ do not die, Kaiser Overall becomes frantic. “Thousands are trying their best, but they haven’t died yet,” he is told. The Kaiser attempts to coopt Death’s strike by declaring that He, the Emperor, guarantees immortality to all his fighting men (“Death, where is thy sting?” he exclaims in ironic mockery of the Christian claim to eternal life though Jesus). But that neither changes anything nor assuages his own mood of despair. Then, as events reach a climax, Death delivers an aria, invoking traces of a Thirty Years War lullaby (in fact, he calls his services “the final lullaby”) and describing himself as a Gardener who carefully tends human demise: “I am one who sows the seeds of sleep in pain-filled furrows...who plucks weary souls like faded weeds...who harvests ripened corn of suffering from your meadows...” Death is surcease: “I’m he that frees you from the Plague...But I am not the Plague...I am he that brings relief from pain...Not he that causes pain.... ” Death asks a sufferer to “be my guest;” and, when the Emperor finally begs Death to break the strike, Death offers a bargain. He will bring back death if the Emperor consents to be the first to die. The chorus sums up—”and thou shalt not take Death’s great name in vain”—sung to the tune of the Lutheran hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” (The original hymn was sung to celebrate eternal life long after the body perished.)
Unlike Wagner’s, this opera is not separate from its social context. Rather, Der Kaiser makes a mockery of that context, an environment where a fit, more modern Death lounges on a street corner coolly picking his teeth, waiting to pull the switch, where the efficient machinery of degradation whirrs in the background. To fight back when history domesticates death, the strategy here is to use farce, satire, and mockery, among the few available weapons that lets the victim snatch their dignity back from their tormentors. Indeed, the old Death reminds us of that in the beginning, as he chides Harlequin with the telling phrase—”Laughter that laughs at itself is immortal.”
In terms of audience, these tropes are reminiscent of an interview that I once conducted with Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. When asked about changes in his writing, he put his head in his hands and moaned; and I paraphrase: so many awful things are happening in Africa on a daily basis that you can’t just go up to someone, grab them by the collar, shake them and say, “Isn’t it awful?” “Isn’t it awful?” They are numbed by the constancy of horror, of terror; and so one uses another strategy, perhaps a uniquely human one at that. Take the enemy to the cleaners with mockery; satirize the bejesus out of them. Such weapons enrage tyrants and prison guards far more than being strafed by enemy firepower.
I am further reminded of how we, whose ears are conditioned by Western music, know that a piece has concluded. The chord resolves. When it doesn’t, we hear it as discord, as dissonance; we squirm and look around to see if anyone else is clapping. In narrative, dissonance between form and content also unnerves us. Operatic tra-la-la and that horrific culmination of centuries of one aspect of the West’s inhumanity, the Nazi death machine? What is this? In contemporary U.S. fiction, we are still seeking a way to use such a strategy. Yet, in our literary past, Voltaire did. Jonathan Swift did with his essay “A Modest Proposal,” in which he proposed the solution to the famine in Ireland was to fatten up Irish babies for the dinner table. (That got Parliament going!) In our time, Ngũgĩ does with his novel, Devil on the Cross, first written on toilet paper (having seen the original, I assure you that paper is not the kind you want to use to wipe your bottom) while he was incarcerated in a Kenyan prison without charge or trial. Using a form out of his own Gikuyu oral traditions, Ngũgĩ’s central conceit features a contest between Thieves and Robbers to demonstrate, eloquently, that they have cheated, conned, and extorted more money and goods from the innocent than their fellow contestants.
In “The Decay in the Art of Lying,” Mark Twain lodged the complaint that lying, which is “man’s [sic] best and surest friend, [and] is immortal,” was in sad shape. Indeed, Twain rued the
...decay of the art of lying [Italics mine.] No high-minded man, no man of right feeling, can contemplate the lumbering and slovenly lying of the present day without grieving to see a noble art so prostituted.
In defense of lying? Time traveling, Twain’s sloppy liars could learn from Ngũgĩ’s more grandiloquent crooks; and, if we are to believe Twain, his artless prevaricators would not have the awareness to do as Der Kaiser‘s Death does, mourn their loss of craft. Perhaps the contrast, then, between the well-made form and the jarring content—the discord, the dissonance—is a provocation, a counter-aesthetic. For the minute a reader catches him- or herself laughing at something which, taken literally, is not funny, which may even be underlyingly horrid—my god, why am I laughing? that’s awful!—the audience/readers are offered an opportunity to revisit their unquestioned assumptions.
In short, my night at the opera with Der Kaiser provoked many thoughts, not only about the theme at hand—the madness of the Nazi death machine—but also about art and the creative spirit under duress, the how, why, and why not of narrative in a precarious world. In our own century, in fact, I suspect we are far more engaged in a struggle for our souls than we realize. Cynical perhaps, but tacked over my desk on an outsized index card is one of the quotes I hold dear, from the anthropological classic, Robert Darnton’s The Cat Massacre. The quotation pertains to the traditional Balinese reading of stories, for days, at a funeral where the reading is specifically organized to repel demons attempting to possess the soul of the deceased:
...the stories contain tales within tales, so that as you enter one you run into another, passing from plot to plot every time you turn a corner, until at least you reach the core of the narrative within the inner courtyard of the household. Demons cannot penetrate this space...they beat their heads helplessly against the narrative maze the readers have built...it creates a wall of words, which operates like the jamming of radio broadcasts. It does not amuse, instruct, improve, or help to while away the time; by the imbrication of narrative and cacophony of sound it protects souls [Italics mine.]
You could read that as portraying the complete denial of evil in the world, or, as I do, as using narrative as a weapon to protect what is most human[e] about us. The opera, Der Kaiser von Atlantis, that haunts me is one of those weapons, even humanizing our old-fashioned inescapable deaths.
In “River Road,” an earlier editorial piece for TQ (#3), I mention a sketch that Eduardo Galeano gave us of a friend, detained as a desaparacido under Uruguay’s dictators, who with great dignity takes a broom for a tango partner, executing the dance with exhausted grace and courage. Well after Galeano’s death, that image is also one that haunts me. I wager that those of us who, for example, have taught in the prison system or worked with anyone who has been abused (been in the joint ourselves or been knocked around by someone we thought we loved) we know how important it is to wrest meaning out of madness. Worthy of consideration though less compelling is the example of the real Thousand and One Nights: in the original, these tales are not Walt D.’s bedtime stories for children. Rather, they are violent, raw, visceral, erotic4; but telling them, if we believe the conceit, saved the teller’s life.
Finally, the use of the surreal, the unreal—inaccurately labeled “fantasy”—goes hand in glove with the strategy of dissonance:
Come and See for Yourself
a Competition to Select Seven Experts
in Modern Theft and Robbery.
Prizes Consist of Bank Loans
of Several Finance Houses.
Try Your Skills!
Try Your Luck!
This is how the competition of Thieves and Robbers is advertised in Ngũgĩ’s Devil on the Cross; and, though clearly fantastical, it is close enough to reality to (a) make one laugh/snort or (b) invite the cynical comments of friends should you, the Reader say, oh-that’s-ridiculous-what-about-character-development? or (c) generate a heated argument about the relationship of art and politics. I will leave (c) alone in consideration for the length of such a discussion, note that (a) depends on how skewed your sense of humor is, and suggest [without reverting to (c),] that in (b) there is more to verbal arts and performance than psychological récit verité. In fact, Ngũgĩ is very judicious about his characterizations, so that in the midst of exaggerated types like the contestants in the above competition, his main character, Warĩĩnga, though the naïf in the novel, has a definite psyche and personality that enables us to enter both the real and the fantastic elements in the novel. Oddly the corresponding character in Der Kaiser von Atlantis is Death. In both works, the element of discord is what shocks us into thinking twice—about the deepest distortions of history and, further, about ways in which we, as narrators, might contribute, as James Baldwin put it, to making this a “more human dwelling place.”
If this is a sneaky sort of manifesto, so be it. The harmonies of beautiful music opening the curtain on Jewish artists and intellectuals in a Nazi holding cell called Thereisenstadt. A festival of Thieves and Robbers competing for the Crown of Ruin and Rapine. A man, desaparacido, dancing the tango in a detention camp erected by Uruguay’s fascist generales. By whatever means, Scheherazade, keep telling stories—or you die. Keep reading, my Balinese friends, or your loved one will lose their soul.
Vive la dissonance!
- The Reich’s official story was that Jews were sent there as a safe haven from the war. When the Swedish Red Cross visited, the camp had been tarted up, “shops” filled with candies and baked goods, and inmates told to stand in specific places, play their roles, and so on. The Red Cross concluded that wartime was hard on everyone, but that the Jews were treated adequately. ↩
- Ultimately, the roughed out score with notes was passed on to another inmate, Dr. Emil Utitz, the camp librarian and former Professor of Philosophy at the German University in Prague. Utitz survived and later gave the manuscripts on to another survivor, Dr. Hans Gunther Adler, a friend of Ullmann’s. Finally it came to the attention of conductor Kerry Woodward who developed a performance version (he apparently used the services of a medium who purportedly “channeled” Ullmann.) While not part of a regular repertoire, it has since been further refined by others, shorn of woo-woo, and returned to its original 1943 text, most recently by Ingo Schultz with Karel Berman. According to notes on the video of an earlier San Diego performance, Der Kaiser von Atlantis was reconstructed from the surviving source materials by musicologists Henning Brauel and Andreas Krause. ↩
- I am freely following the subscripts of the English translation for the UC San Diego performance in 2013. The Juilliard performance, in my opinion, had a far better set and staging, but the performances in both were excellent.
For the San Diego, see https://vimeo.com/45899028; should you be reasonably fluent in German (I am not,) see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xaDcVJyibXw. ↩
- And, apparently, a good translation for grownups is very difficult to find. Sir Richard (“Kama Sutra”) Burton’s remains one of the few. ↩