An opera's survival of the Holocaust inspired A Journey of the Human Spirit

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Running two nights only -- tonight and tomorrow at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts -- A Journey of the Human Spirit is an incredible three-part look at life before, during and after the Holocaust. Based on composer Viktor Ullmann and librettist Peter Kien's fifty-minute opera The Emperor of Atlantis, the piece has been painstakingly set to klezmer music by Hal Aqua and the Lost Tribe and the newly created "From Darkness to Light," composed by Ofer Ben-Amots and choreographed by Garrett Ammon for Ballet Nouveau Colorado.

This work resulted from over a year of brainstorming and collaboration between Ballet Nouveau Colorado, Central City Opera, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, and the Mizel Arts and Culture Center, the Jewish Community Center. In advance of these two special showings, Stuart Raynor, CEO of the Jewish Community Center, gave Westword some insight into just how persistent Ullmann and Kien were to make sure their work survived the Holocaust -- even as both artists lost their lives.

See also:
- West Side Stories shines a light on Denver's colorful Jewish history
- Ballet Nouveau Colorado is headed for Five Points -- and Wonderbound
- Reach for the stars at the Mizel Museum with artists Monica Aiello and Martin Mendelsberg

Westword: How did A Journey of the Human Spirit come to be?

Stuart Raynor:
It started because Monika Vischer [classical music host for Colorado Public Radio] had become interested in music that was written during the period of the Holocaust in Europe. A lot of those pieces from these composers were obviously silenced -- either they weren't allowed to be played or in many cases ran into a lot of personal issues or they were killed.

So the music is out there and it lay dormant for many years. Over the last ten or fifteen years, that music has started to be discovered and become played around the world. There was this one particular one-act opera called The Kaiser From Atlantis or The Emperor of Atlantis that was written in Theresienstadt. Theresienstadt was a "model" concentration camp where the Nazis sent many of the artists and intellectuals during the Holocaust; it was where the Red Cross was taken when they wanted to see what was going on in the camps.

It was sort of like a walled town -- they showed (the prisoners) being able to create their art. It was a scam, a 80 or 90 percent of the people there were killed in concentration camps, other camps. There was a very important, and one of the best composers at the time, Viktor Ullmann, there. He wrote this one act opera, and it was a spoof of Hitler.

It was really a difficult thing for him to do in that time and he was really throwing it in the face of the Nazis. The S.S. was tipped off that this opera was in rehearsal and they came to see it. They stood in the back where no one saw them and once that happened, it was never staged. Within a week or two, Ullmann and the librettist Peter Kien were killed.

This opera was never played until the 1970s, when it was discovered in Holland. It has been since been played around the world -- but never before in Colorado. So the story ties back to Monika because she had known that I had been involved with the production of this opera once. She was just fascinated by it, so she started talking to me about how we could get it staged in Colorado.

That led to the bringing together of these different presenting organizations in the arts. We came together and started talking about the opera, and we hadn't decided to do it -- it was kind of just a conversation.

But over the course of these conversations, everyone realized: When you tell artists that someone else is going to silence their work, it doesn't really sit well. And when sort of a political situation that is really horrible happens -- and obviously, there wasn't much worse in history than the Holocaust -- often it is the artists who stand up and risk their lives and careers. That is what Ullmann and Kien did.

So we decided among this group that the silence couldn't be allowed to happen. That's how A Journey of the Human Spirit started.

Location Info


Newman Center for the Performing Arts

2344 E. Iliff Ave., Denver, CO

Category: Music

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