Thirteen years ago, Charles Barber’s music tutor, Paul Kling – or PK, as he liked to be called – suggested an impromptu drive to Mexico from their homes in California. The trip marked the first time Barber had ever seen his friend without a jacket, tie and vest. But as relaxed as he was that day, Kling, a Czech virtuoso violinist and retired chair of the University of Victoria’s School of Music, did not roll up the sleeves of his white shirt.
“I realized I had spent years indulging in magical thinking,” acknowledges Barber, now conductor and artistic director of City Opera Vancouver. “I knew PK was Jewish, I just presumed he’d escaped the war hiding out in a cave in Switzerland, or something.”
He put the last pieces of the puzzle together when he was advised by another of Kling’s former students to read Music in Terezin 1941-1945, by Joza Karas. “There was a Pavel Kling who featured prominently,” says Barber. “And I knew instantly that was PK.”
Theresienstadt concentration camp (termed Terezin in Czech) was the so-called “model ghetto,” where the Gestapo grouped together educated Jews, including many musicians who were forced to create orchestras and jazz bands to perform for the Nazi propaganda machine.
Kling had been deported to Theresienstadt in 1943. Just 15 years of age, he already displayed signs of a prodigious talent. Dubbed “the little one” by fellow prisoner Karel Ancerl (later conductor of the Toronto Symphony), Kling received instruction from many of the camp’s musicians, at one point sharing sleeping quarters with two conductors, three composers, a poet and a number of teachers. He was a member of several of the camp’s ensembles, including the orchestra working on The Emperor of Atlantis.
With music by Viktor Ullmann and libretto by Petr Kien, The Emperor of Atlantis is an hour-long chamber opera – and a political allegory: The eponymous anti-hero Emperor Uberall’s brutality becomes so egregious, Death himself rebels and refuses to kill people. The score is sharply satirical, employing many musical references including a version of Deutschland Uber Alles, set to a Bach-inflected chorale.
The piece was into full rehearsals before an SS officer figured out the subtext – and promptly shut down the production. The entire company was shipped to Auschwitz in September of 1944. All but two perished there: Kling and one other member survived. They lied and persuaded the guards they were simply engineers and had nothing to do with the music. They were sent to the slave labour area of Auschwitz-Birkenau and survived to see the Russians advance and the camp liberated the following January.
“Thirty years later,” notes Barber. “PK came to the West and became my teacher.” And 13 years after that fateful trip to Mexico, The Emperor of Atlantis is having its B.C. premiere in Vancouver.
Produced on a shoestring budget of $127,000, the production is presented in partnership with the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. With no budget for advertising, Barber and his colleagues have been working hard at spreading the remarkable story of this opera and Professor Kling, who died in 2005.
“We have held 44 talks to try and build an audience,” Barber says. “At one, an elderly woman came up to me afterward and said, ‘Thank you for talking about this – I was there.’ I didn’t have a single word in me. I simply held her hand.”
Of the approximately 200 known Holocaust survivors living in Vancouver, seven or eight were at Theresienstadt. The opening performance will include many survivors in the audience, and will be attended by B.C.’s Lieutenant-Governor, Steven Point. Though the opera itself runs just an hour, a 30-40 minute prologue has been devised to remember the history and put the work into context.
“This is the first time I have ever warned the singers and orchestra to be prepared for audible sobs and cries from the audience,” says Barber.
Tickets for the remaining four evenings are selling slowly. Even if all five performances sell out, City Opera will only break even. Barber has waived his $5,000 fee for directing and conducting the piece. “We decided we would continue regardless – even if we lose our shirts,” he insists. “The entire company is so proud to be associated with such an important production.
“Ullmann wrote a masterpiece: Had he not been murdered, you and I would know his name today,” Barber concludes. “This work needs to be heard – and it needs to be heard in British Columbia, where my teacher spent many years inspiring young musicians. My teacher – Paul Kling – who worked on this opera, and who the Nazis tried to kill.”
The Emperor of Atlantis plays at the Norman Rothstein Theatre in Vancouver, Feb. 4, 7, 9 and 11 at 8 p.m. www.cityoperavancouver.com.