Chicago Opera Theater DePaul

Chicago Opera Theater's Summer Satires

Friday, June 06, 2014 Rob Samuelson

“Hello, hello,” Loudspeakers #1 and #2 sing to the audience with an air of welcoming pomposity. Their faces are caked in mime makeup, their fanciest clothes having seen better days. They're surrounded by the morose ensemble dressing for their parts in front of the crowd. We have the Harlequin, Death himself, the Drummer, Emperor Uberall of Atlantis, a Soldier, and a young lady named Bubikopf. Behind them are two pairs of bunk beds. The Loudspeakers tell us the emperor's latest all-out war has been rough. Death is beyond frustrated, sick of having to collect so many souls at all times. He quits his job. People can no longer die, yet they continue fighting nonetheless.

So we have set the scene for Chicago Opera Theater's production of Viktor Ullmann's opera, The Emperor of Atlantis, written while Ullmann was imprisoned at the Theresienstadt concentration camp during World War II. It's a grim satire of Adolf Hitler's, and dictators in general, fixation on subjugation and mass murder. It's plenty important for anyone interested in free expression and checking overwhelming power.

Chicago Opera Theater's general director, Andreas Mitisek, bets most people agree with that notion because of the oppression still operating in the world.

If we talk about the theme, these themes are universal and they are going on nowadays. Look at Syria, look at quite a few other places,” he says. “There are things that [we] just happen to be constantly reminded of. Satire in a way is a wonderful way to deal with difficult subjects. They make you laugh before they make you cry in some ways.”

The laughter in The Emperor of Atlantis is necessarily at a minimum, given its meta conceit of being a depiction of Ullmann's makeshift concentration camp troupe putting on the show that was snuffed by the S.S. in 1943 after they caught wind of rehearsals. But cleverness is everywhere. The Drummer, played by Cassidy Smith, provides much of it as a vivacious, blonde and lusty personification of war itself, perpetually seducing men in a corset of violence.

It is all these big ideas – oppression, war, totalitarianism, the obscene glamour of dictators – that form Chicago Opera Theater's season, which runs through September. This week's show, a twin bill of The Emperor of Atlantis and Carl Orff's The Clever One, featuring a mostly overlapping cast, takes a satiric look at these themes. Rarely are these one act operas funny in the ha-ha sense, but they are consistently, amusingly subversive.

But it's not just operas Chicago Opera Theater wants to provide to Chicagoans. As supplementary material, Mitisek and his collaborators have searched for companion pieces in film history to screen. Last Sunday, they showed Charlie Chaplin's classic satire The Great Dicator at the Music Box in Lakeview. Chaplin plays dual roles as a Hitler-style dictator and dunderheaded barber who could be the leader's twin. Chaplin's usual slapstick and humanism poke fun at the absurdity of Hitler's Germany.

It's an obvious place to contact for what the Music Box does: unusual movies that's not always the mainstream,” Mitisek says. “That's always what Chicago Opera Theater does. It's a natural fit.”

Mitisek channeled Chaplin especially in the latter opera of the bill, Orff's The Clever One. It contrasts with The Emperor of Atlantis with color, loudness, multimedia projections and a more jovial tone.  Three giant rolls of paper become canvases for electronic painters and doorways for the actors onstage. A trio of drunks sings catchy songs, a dictator gets his comeuppance from a woman he forces to marry him and a comical sense of justice permeates.

It makes sense the tone lines up with Chaplin more than Ullmann. Mitisek says Orff wrote his opera in Frankfurt, where he was considered part of “official Germany,” meaning he was considered okay by the Nazis. He was likely considered a sympathizer by the regime, but his staging of this opera, with its buffoon of an emperor, suggests he had no sympathies with the Nazis in reality. He had to be sly about things, and satire empowered him to get across his ideas.

Mitisek says his comrades at Chicago Opera Theater wish to showcase the bravery of these people, while depicting something off the beaten path in the Chicago theatre scene.

It's just a great place to go and experience something new,” he says.

Chicago Opera Theater runs The Emperor of Atlantis and The Clever One tonight and Sunday afternoon at DePaul's Merle Reskin Theatre at 60 East Balbo. For ticket information, call 312-922-1999.

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