Sunday, December 14, 2003

Conflict links operas

Productions feature confrontation of powerful vs. oppressed

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Nicholas Muni is excited about pairing The Emperor of Atlantis and The Maids in the Cincinnati Opera summer season.
(Enquirer file photo)
Cincinnati Opera announced this week that it will substitute one of the operas in its double bill (June 24 and 26) for the summer season.

The Emperor of Atlantis, a one-act opera by Czech composer and Holocaust victim Viktor Ullmann, will be paired with The Maids, by Swedish composer Peter Bengtson. The latter is a U.S. premiere. The Emperor, which will be a company premiere, replaces Philip Glass' The Fall of the House of Usher, which had a scheduling conflict.

We spoke with the company's artistic director Nicholas Muni about the double bill, that he will direct, and some of his other activities.

How will "The Emperor," a Holocaust opera in which the Emperor symbolizes Hitler, fit with "The Maids," a thriller based on a 1933 crime story in which two maids murdered their employers?

What they have in common is a source of power, pitted against people in poverty. In the case of Atlantis, it's political power. In the case of The Maids, it's economic power. Different kinds of power, in conflict with oppressed members of society are tying them together.

How will you and your creative team (set designer Dany Lyne and lighting designer Thomas Hase) link the sets?

We're in the process of it, but what you'll have depicted is an endless landscape, in which the impoverished, oppressed people exist, and a separate room, which is quite lavish, for the Emperor, and in the second piece, the Madame's house.

What we've been surprised about is how well these two link, not only in the themes I just mentioned, but musically. The musical universe is not that dissimilar.

The "Emperor of Atlantis" was performed at the May Festival in 2001. How will your production be different?

That was a semi-staging, and it wasn't in a theater. It's very different; this is a full production. This will be a different context, being a double bill.

What is your concept for "The Emperor of Atlantis?"

It's still in development, but we're taking a look at it from a more universal viewpoint, not looking at it from its original context. ... The piece was never performed in the composer's lifetime. It was pieced together for the world premiere in 1975. There are some conflicting texts, such as the final aria for the Emperor. One of the texts was softer, the other more politically edgy.

The second of the two arias, Dany and I feel, is closer to the real intention of what Ullmann wanted. As horrible has Hitler was, I think he was thinking beyond that and saying it's even bigger than this. ... The point being that as long as mankind has violent tendencies, as long as war is an option, emperors and tyrants come and go, but there will always be this misery.

It paints a bleak picture.

Yes, but it's hopeful too. It's an amazingly beautiful work.

Will you update the production?

We're still grappling with it. But what we are sure of is finding an interpretation that does not lock it so tightly into the original context that it cannot strongly imply or state something universal.

Is there a message you hope to convey?

To me, it's another step in artistic exploration, exploring what I feel are fantastic pieces, one of which has never been heard in America.

What other things are you doing between opera seasons?

Coming up, I'm directing a piece, Street Scene, at the Kurt Weill International Festival in Dessau, Germany. (It opens Feb. 27). It was one of Weill's Broadway operas from 1947. It takes place on a street in New York, with a big cast, maybe 30 characters plus a chorus, and has a lot of lively Broadway tunes.

This fall, I've done traveling and talent scouting in Europe. In September, I was on a panel of judges for an international vocal competition in Vervier, Belgium.

Are you working on future seasons, beyond 2004?

Yes, the 2005 budget has been mostly approved, so we're working on casting for that. I've also been working on Margaret Garner (a new commission to honor the opening of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, to premiere in 2005).

New subscriptions will go on sale March 1. Single tickets will go on sale May 3. (515) 241-2742. For updated casting, visit


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