(first published in The Cincinnati Post June 24, 2004)
Cincinnati Opera audiences will see double this week with an evening devoted to two one-act operas, Viktor Ullmann’s "The Emperor of Atlantis" and Peter Bengtson’s "The Maids."
Both are Cincinnati Opera premieres. "The Maids" is also a U.S. premiere.
Curtain is 8 p.m. tonight and Saturday at Music Hall.
The event furthers the opera’s strategic goal of pursuing "artistic excellence" through "expansion of the repertoire with company premieres and new works."
Similar pairings took place during the 2001 and 2003 seasons (a "tripling" last season, with Poulenc’s "La voix humaine," Weill’s "The Seven Deadly Sins" and Bolcom’s "Medusa").
Directing "The Emperor of Atlantis" and "The Maids," as he did the earlier productions, is opera artistic director Nicholas Muni. Set and costumes are by Dany Lyne, designer of last season’s triple bill.
The operas are sharing the same production, something of a feat for such divergent works.
Composed at Terezin concentration camp in 1943-44, "The Emperor of Atlantis" is an allegory about an absolute dictator and the strange dilemma he brings on the world. "The Maids," premiered in 1994 in Stockholm, is based on Jean Genet’s play about the infamous Papin sisters who murdered their mistress in France in 1933.
"They are very, very different operas," said Muni. "They couldn’t be more different in some ways."
Ullmann’s takes place in an imaginary future, when the world has fallen under the sway of Emperor Uberall (a thinly disguised portrait of Hitler). Uberall declares "a holy war of all against all." Death takes umbrage at this and goes on strike. Foiled when no one can die, Uberall negotiates with Death, who consents to resume his work only if the Emperor agrees to be the first to die.
Bengtson follows Genet by focusing on the sisters’ complex and tortured state of mind rather than the crime itself. One of them plays acts Madame as they hatch their plan. Things go awry when she returns home unexpectedly.
"One thing we found they share is that both of them deal with a power structure where you have a great divide between the rich and powerful and people who are impoverished. In ‘The Maids,’ it has to do with class and is on a very personal level. They feel almost like slaves in contrast to Madame, who is extremely wealthy. In ‘The Emperor,’ it’s on a political, social level. The Emperor is an all-powerful tyrant around whom are oppressed people who have nothing."
Locus of the action in both operas is a room positioned above and to the right of the stage. It is Uberall’s throne room and Madame’s luxurious bathroom. The space below and behind the room represents the earthly devastation Uberall has wrought and the psychological devastation of the sisters’ minds.
"What you see in ‘The Emperor’ is a sort of destroyed landscape," said Muni. "Wrapping around it is a huge cyclorama, a very troubled sky, cloudy and smoky. Floating above it is a room." In the room are Uberall’s throne, a plasma screen through which he communicates with the outside world and a portrait of him as head of the church.
"He’s created this trinity where he is head of media, head of state and head of church. In the script he refers to himself as the high pope," said Muni.
There will be 80 supers (extras) in "The Emperor." "These are the victims of his rule, the people who get sent to war, who are unable to die and suffer this horrible, living death. There are Africans, Asians, Caucasians, young kids, old people. If there were ever a starring role for supers, this is it."
The action in "The Maids" would normally take place in the bedroom, said Muni. " Dany did a lot of research on the latest things in bedroom design and wrote me an e-mail and saying that putting bathtubs in the bedroom is in. I wrote back to her, ‘What if this whole thing takes place in a bathroom?’"
The significance is purification, good and evil, "of dirt and purifying yourself from dirt." It also denotes Madame’s wealth. " Bathrooms are undergoing an architectural revolution. They’re really living spaces. And if the bathroom is that big, how big is her house?"
The stage area in "The Maids" reflects the sisters’ "inner devastation. It’ll be very moody and un-real looking."
"There’s a curious timeline confluence between "The Emperor" and "The Maids," said Muni. Hitler came to power in 1993, the same year as the sisters’ crime. Both events found artistic expression in the mid-40s (Ullmann’s opera and Genet’s play). They meet up again later in the 20th century ("The Emperor" had its world premiere in 1975 in Amsterdam, Bengtson wrote his opera in 1994).
"We’re bringing them back together in 2004."
Musically, there are similarities as well. "I wouldn’t exactly call it modern romanticism, but there’s a mixture of styles and of dissonance and consonance," said Muni.
Singing in "The Emperor of Atlantis" are Brian Leerhuber as The Emperor, Thomas Goerz as The Loudspeaker, Allyson McHardy as War, Mark Panuccio as Life, Andrew Gangestad as Death, Ray M. Wade Jr. as The Soldier and Nancy Allen Lundy as Bubikopf. Lundy and McHardy sing Claire and Solange in "The Maids," with Stephanie Novacek as Madame. Patrick Summers will conduct.
Tickets for "The Emperor of Atlantis" and "The Maids" are $25-$130. Call (513) 241-2742 or order online at www.cincinnatiopera.org.