William Dwyer, Emily Birsan in The Emperor of Atlantis
  • Liz Lauren
  • William Dwyer and Emily Birsan in The Emperor of Atlantis

We’ve had a coincidental festival of activist art this spring, including the CSO’s “Truth to Power” concert series and the Block Museum’s “The Left Front” exhibit of radical art from 1929 to 1940.

But the most potent example is on display this week in Chicago Opera Theater’s effectively staged production of Viktor Ullmann’s one-act opera The Emperor of Atlantis.

Ullmann’s “sort-of opera” was composed in Terezin concentration camp in 1943, where it was rehearsed but never allowed to be performed. The score, which is both lyrical and dissonant, blends contemporary classical and cabaret influences, while the libretto—by fellow Terezin prisoner Peter Kien—tells of an existence so corrupted under a ruler committed to a war of extinction that Death himself goes on strike. Ullmann and Kien were both sent to Auschwitz, where they were killed in 1944.

COT general director Andreas Mitisek conceived and directs this production himself, making good use of a strong young cast of ten and the talents of video and puppet designer Sean T. Cawelti. Its pairing with Nazi favorite Carl Orff’s less significant folktale opera, The Clever One, written at the same time, is provocative, amounting to a mini immersion in the nightmare that was continental Europe in 1943. Anyone with an interest in the era should be fascinated.

The narrative role of the Loudspeaker in the Ullmann work is smartly split and handled by two bass-baritones, Paul Corona and Neil Edwards; a third deep voice, bass-baritone David Govertsen, is Death personified, and baritone Andrew Wilkowske plays both mad rulers—”Emperor Uberall” and Orff’s King. Silver-voiced soprano Emily Birsan (heard more in the Orff piece) is a standout. Francesco Milioto conducts an 18-piece orchestra.

Performances continue tonight and Friday 6/6 at 7:30 PM and Sunday 6/8 at 3 PM at DePaul’s Merle Reskin Theatre, 60 E. Balbo, 312-922-9999, chicagooperatheater.org, $35-$125.