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.

There are more components than just the original opera involved. How did the klezmer music and ballet come to be?

It's a short, one-act opera, so we decided to create a piece on the second half of the opera. That is From Darkness to Light and it is a combination of a new piece of music written by a Colorado composer [Ofer Ben-Amots] who is Israeli-born and a dance piece created by Garrett Ammon, who is also from Colorado.

The two pieces kind of work together. Prior to that, there will be some early twentieth century klezmer music. The concept of this whole evening is for the viewer to see a beautiful, rich, cultural Jewish life, pre-Holocaust. Then it takes them musically and emotionally through this bad period of time, which is the opera. Out of it comes a hope for a brighter, better, more beautiful future, which is the second piece of music and the dance.

(Prior to tonight's showing) none of us have seen it -- it's brand-new.

When all of these groups were collaborating, did you feel like adding the additional sort of positive result piece because you couldn't just present the opera alone?

Well, there was a practical side of it. The practical side is that there is a fifty-minute opera. So if you're going to ask an audience to come to a program, that's not enough. So when you're going to present this thing, what are you going to put next to it? It's really an emotional, incredible piece of work. You can't just put anything with it.

It took us a year of conversation, and we had all kinds of thoughts and ideas. In the end, we decided that we should do something we create and commission ourselves. We wanted the program to connect; we wanted to continue the story but leave the audience as they leave the performance feeling that there is hope in the world. That when these things happen, there is another side to it -- there is balance.

In the end, this whole thing was about creativity under pressure: How do artists, composers, musicians and writers respond when they are under this amazing amount of pressure? What does creativity look like? That has been a really interesting part of the whole piece.

It's incredible that these composers were able to do something in the realm of humor under the circumstances.

I think so, too. To go to a place and use humor -- I guess it teaches us something. (Ullmann and Kien) both lost their lives and we knew it. I don't remember the exact story, but Ullmann gave this piece of music to someone [Dr. Emil Utiz, a fellow prisoner in the camp, who gave it to Dr. Hans G. Adler, a friend of Ullmann's] because he knew he was going to die. So he hid it away and then gave it to someone in the camp to get it out after the war. They knew what was happening. It wasn't a surprise.

To remain resilient as an artist in the face of death and do it with humor is pretty incredible. And to make sure your work survives -- that's amazing.

In the end, Hitler took away people's religions, and their families and their objects. Everything that made them comfortable, and their lives meaningful. Their whole worlds. But he couldn't take away their creativity. So that is what was left. You can't take away what is inside of a person.

The Journey of the Human Spirit runs tonight, January 16 and tomorrow, January 17, at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 303-871-7715 or visit the venue's website.

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