DBH and I love to see “new to us” operas. Chicago Opera Theater presented two German operas in English, Viktor Ullmann’s The Emperor of Atlantis and Carl Orff’s The Clever One. The location was DePaul University’s Merle Reskin Theater, formerly the Blackstone Theater.
I have two vivid memories of the Blackstone, which is located directly north of the huge Hilton Hotel on Michigan Avenue. The first is attending a play with my fiancé on August 28, 1968. Totally unbeknownst to us, the Chicago Democratic Convention riots started during the production and we walked out into a mob of police, bloody young men and women and news cameras. We hoofed our way out of there fast. The second is taking my two nieces, Megan and Tracy, to see Joseph and His Technicolor Dreamcoat. To this day, they can still sing the songs.
The operas we saw were homage to German composers working during WWII. Ullmann is best remembered for his copious output while confined by the Nazis to the Theresienstadt ghetto. He later died at Auschwitz. The Emperor of Atlantis is written in the modern, atonal manner; you don’t go home humming the tunes. It’s a about death going on strike, much to the Emperor’s chagrin. He’s fighting a war and wants the enemies to die. In true politician fashion, the Emperor then declares that he has freed the country from death…and so it goes. Interesting, but not enjoyable. Notable was the center stage set which consisted of two bunk beds that imitated those seen in the horrible photos inside the concentration camp barracks.
Carl Orff’s survival during WWII may have resulted from collaboration with the Nazis. It’s the old tale of “he said, she said”, but he lived rather well under the Third Reich. Orff is best remembered for Carmina Burana, written in 1937. The Clever One reflects the primitive rhythm expressed by voices and percussion, combined with lyrical voices and orchestra, that characterizes Carmina. It’s the story of a clever woman who outwits the king in a most kind and loving way. It was the hit of the evening for us – because we love Carl Orff and because it was a fun and charming production.
Featured in both productions were outstanding singers; notably Emily Birsan, Soprano, David Govertsen, Bass-baritone, and Bernard Holcomb, Tenor. These are young talents that we will hear more from as they mature.
But for me, the greatest talent was the Video and Puppet Designer, Sean Cawelti. The Clever One was staged with three paper rolling screens behind the singers. These were used for drawing, video projection, cutting apart for entrances and exits, and for shadow puppets. The interaction of the set with the singers was dynamic and engaging. Hard to describe, but so effective.