Baritone  Brian  Davis

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie,
mostly about The Emperor of Atlantis,
the opera by Viktor Ullmann

brian davis

Biography from the artists website.  Vis-à-vis the list of names he has worked with, see my interviews with
Daniel Barenboim, Richard Buckley, James Conlon, Mark Flint, Hal France, James Levine, Jesús López-Cobos,
Lorin Maazel, George Manahan, Stewart Robertson, Emmanuel Villaume, Linda Brovsky, and Robert Wilson.
[Throughout this page, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD]

In June of 1998, Brian Davis was appearing with the Chicago Opera Theater as the title character of The Emperor of Atlantis by Viktor Ullmann.  One of three short operas, it was given along with Bon Appetit! by Lee Hoiby, and The Face on the Barroom Floor by Henry Mollicone.  The Ullmann work was conducted by Lawrence Rapchak, and staged by Rhoda Levine, with designs by Robert Israel.  To read a comprehensive biography of Ullmann from the OREL Foundation website, click HERE.

A few days before the operas opened, the baritone agreed to speak with me about the work.  Portions were used on WNIB, Classical 97, to promote the performances, and now, a quarter-century later, I am pleased to present the entire conversation.
brian davis
The Emperor of Atlantis has a very special history, which we discussed right away . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Tell me a little bit about the opera.

Brian Davis:    It’s an interesting piece, written in Theresienstadt, which was one of the show cities, if you will, during World War Two.

BD:   This was a prison camp?

Davis:   A prison camp, set up primarily by the SS as a show camp for the Red Cross concerns of people around the world, who had been hearing all the rumors about the genocide that was happening.

BD:   This was to fool the outside world into thinking that everything was just hunky-dory?

Davis:   Exactly right.  Terezin was in Czechoslovakia, and they cleared out the city and set up a camp.  They went so far as to produce movies showing the supposed leisurely lifestyle that the Jewish people, the Gypsy people, and all the
undesirables were leading, to quell any of the worries that the rest of the world was having.  Given the fact that they had such a high concentration of people there, they had a lot of time on their hands.

BD:   There also was quite a bit of talent, too?

Davis:   Exactly, and one of the talents there was Victor Ullmann.  He was a professional composer, and organized musical evenings for the entertainment of the people in the camps.

BD:   Were they entertaining the people in the camps, or were they entertaining visiting dignitaries, or both?

Davis:   Primarily, if you can imagine being isolated in a camp where your every movement and every thought is being monitored, that would create quite stressful situation.  So I would hazard a guess that Ullmann was really providing a little bit of creative hope, if you will, for the people.  In setting up evening recitals, they put together a symphony orchestra, where they performed traditional pieces, as well as some original compositions that were written there in the camp.

BD:   One of those pieces was The Emperor of Atlantis?

Davis:   Yes.  He wrote The Emperor of Atlantis with a librettist who was also a painter.  As I have read up on it and become familiar with it, the primary importance of the piece was to provide hope for the people in the camp.  The plot outline is that you have a fascist Emperor of Atlantis, who declares war, and wants to rid the land of the impure.  [With a smirk]  Sounds a lot like Adolf Hitler...

BD:   It’s not very subtle.

Davis:   No, and I’m sure they weren’t really trying to be too subtle about it.  But Death [sung in this production by William Powers] is not a hooded sickle-carrying menace, but an old man who is quite reminiscent.  He gets extremely offended by the fact that this fascist leader has taken control of mechanized deaths that are taking place.  So he decides he’s going to stop collecting the people who are participating in war, so no one can die.  You have walking-wounded people running around, filling up the battlefields and all of the hospitals.  This literally drives the Emperor mad, because he has lost control.  He has lost his element of fear because people can’t die.  The interesting side-issue is that it’s ironic to think that the people in the camps who would be watching a performance of this piece would get quite a thrill over the idea that death would take a holiday, and that no one would die.  That has a certain ironic charm, if you will, and that, in itself, would not only provide cheeky entertainment, but also a level of hope.

BD:   The people who were there knew they were probably going to perish, so they would understand all of this.  Does it still speak to the audiences who have come through the end of that War, and another couple of wars and all that has happened since?

Davis:   Yes, it really does, and that was why I was so excited to be asked to participate in this production, particularly when I found out that Rhoda Levine was directing it.  She really has championed this piece.

BD:   Didn
t she direct the first performance?

Davis:   Right!  I believe it was in 1975 in Holland.  She has done it in other academic situations, and I understand she holds the rights for performing this piece here in the United States.  
She is re-mounting the production that she did in Holland, so she has all of that experience, as well as all of her expertise in stage-direction.

BD:   Tell me about your part as the Kaiser.  Is it a good role to sing?

It’s a great part for a baritone.  It has some fun music, and some glorious music with lots of high notes that people always love to hear.  From a purely vocal standpoint, it does have its challenges.  For those who love to compare low notes and high notes, the range is from low G, [G3] up to high G [G5].  So it’s a good two-octaves, and at the very end, the last aria that I sing is very Schubertian.  There’s an intensity that rides through it, but it utilizes the head tone, so that, in itself, at the end of the evening, after I’ve been ranting and raving, presents its own challenges.

BD:   Should the audience applaud your performance, or should they hiss your character?

Davis:   [Laughs]  That is always an issue.  In our staging, we are not gratuitously asking for applause.  We perform the piece, and when it finishes we simply walk off.  I don’t think we are planning any staged bows.  The character of the Emperor strikes me as strange, yet at the same time it’s understandable.  He is a sympathetic character, but in a sad way.  I don’t know how many times in our lives we run into a person who desperately wants to be in control of everything around him or her, and then we watch them literally fall apart when that doesn’t happen.  You see the amount of themselves and their energy that they have invested in control, and that really is who this character is.

BD:   Does he become obsessed by it?

Davis:   Yes, totally obsessed, and it becomes his madness.  It literally drives him mad.  He’s isolated himself in the office.

BD:   Does he have any redeeming qualities at all?

Davis:   [Sighs and thinks a moment]  Initially I would say no.  He doesn’t really show a whole lot of tolerance, and he doesn’t show any compassion.  He’s always trying to figure out a way to kill the people that he is determined to kill, and to manipulate the situations to his advantage through propaganda.

BD:   He really wants to kill them, and not just ship them off?

Davis:   Yes.  Ultimately, I suppose, in a spiritual sense, any human being, no matter how horrible, deserves some level of compassion, but in this case, and in this situation, given the history of World War Two, I certainly understand those who would have an issue against that viewpoint.  In the travels for my singing, I met an individual in Indiana, who is an art collector.  He showed me a piece that he had which was actually authenticated.  It was a watercolor that Hitler had done as a young person.  He was 17 or 18 at the time, and it was very small, about 6 inches by 8 inches.  It was nothing huge and grand, but very well done.  Observing it, I felt it was a very nice piece, and the collector asked me if I noticed anything in particular about it.
brian davis
BD:   [Laughs]  Like the signature???

Davis:   Yes.  I looked at the initials, which were A.H., and a late
20s date.  He didn’t say anything more, but went over and got an art history book dealing with Adolf Hitler.  I looked at it, and I can’t tell you the level of horror I felt.  Yet, at the same time, many questions came to me...

“My God, I’ve actually liked something that he did?

Davis:   Yes.  You feel guilty for that, because it was actually a fine piece of art, but at the same time, given the history of what that man created and destroyed, how could anyone who could create a thing of beauty turn 180° and become such a massive destructor of beauty?  I
t was a watercolor of a pastoral scene of a castle, and I thought, My God!  Not even ten years later, he began the whole Third Reich and started destroying.  It’s one of those human dilemmas that we face.

BD:   It will be an enigma forever.  It’s too bad that he lost that creative spirit and went in another direction, when he could have done something positive.

Davis:   It has become cliché in today’s world, but for lack of love and acceptance, no one knows what could have been.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Coming back to the opera, does all this knowledge of the actual Hitler affect the way you portray the Kaiser, and does the knowledge of what happens in World War Two affect the way you bring this opera to life?  And does the fact that it was written in a death camp enter into your thoughts?

Davis:   In the aspect of the history of the piece, that it was created in a prison camp, we do keep that in mind, but we don’t become sentimental about it.  Rhoda has been reminding us of that every night in our rehearsals.  She says that if we become sentimental as performers in portraying this piece, then it loses its impact.

BD:   You don’t want to become outraged?

Davis:   Right, we have to present it in a very matter-of-fact straightforward way.

BD:   Do you think this is the way that Ullmann wanted it eventually to be performed?

Davis:   I believe so.  There is a ground level of cabaret witticism about it that is very dry-humored, and if you tried to become sentimental with that, it would lose its power.  As far as equating the Kaiser character with Adolf Hitler, there really is nothing in the piece itself that is directly imitating or mocking who that man was.

BD:   You don’t wear a little mustache?

Davis:   No, we don’t do anything like that.  That would breach on the level of just being offensive, and that’s not the purpose of the piece.  The purpose of the piece is to get into who that man was as an archetype, as the person who found himself in leadership and in control of people, and what he did with that.  If one may be so kind as to draw the parallel, there is a bit of a Greek tragedy element to it.  But that’s being a bit kind, and maybe gives too much to the character.  There is a level of personification of evil in it, but also a lot of the human anxiety and frustration that any person might be able to sympathize with, if they choose to.

BD:   Is this a role that you’d like to perform again?

Davis:   Yes.  I’m very curious to do this role again, particularly in the German text as it was originally composed.  This is a very interesting point, the fact that they were in Czechoslovakia, and Ullmann, with his librettist, chose to write the piece in German rather than Czech.  Most of the people in the camp were Czech, and were people being sent across the border.  I don’t think being able to have his audience understand what they were writing was an issue, but the fact is that they chose to write it in German.  The tragedy of it is that they were in full dress rehearsals, getting ready to mount the performances of the piece when the SS officers came in.  They observed the rehearsal, and figured out that, yes, indeed, this was a slam against fascism, against Hitler, against the Third Reich, and so they shut it down.  It was never performed before an audience there, and for many years it was assumed to be lost.

BD:   It’s quite a story that the score actually was found.

Davis:   Yes!  As I understand it, the score was hidden away in the walls of the prison, and years later one of the survivors knew that it had been hidden away, and he was able to get it out.  Now the piece literally lives on.

BD:   It is attaching too much importance to say that it stands as a testament to those who died?

Davis:   No.  It really does that.  But even more so, it stands as testament to the humanity of those who survived, and those who died, because there is humor in this piece.  There are moments of lightness, which is amazing for anyone placed in such an insanely inhuman situation as they were.  They knew that they would be sent off to the death camps at any time.  As a matter of fact, Ullmann and his librettist were both sent off to Auschwitz.  So, this is a testament to the huge amount of courage in humanity that survived in the people in the camps at the time, and as a testament for those survivors.  It then becomes a testament of remembrance for all of us.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What other roles do you sing?

Davis:   Don Giovanni!  I also do the Count in The Marriage of Figaro, Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor, and Marcello in La Bohème.  I’ve also had a good opportunity to do some more obscure pieces in Sarasota, Florida.  In the last few seasons, I’ve done the Spielmann [Fiddler] in Englebert Humperdinck’s Königskinder there.  We did that in a new full production in German,
and this next season I get out to Salt Lake City to do Ping in Turandot.  A good friend of mine, Jeffrey Brody is a Boston composer [biography in the box below], and he wrote a work called Elegies for Rog, as in Roger, dealing with AIDS issues.  The poetry is by Paul Monette, and it has a Straussian orchestra.

BD:   [Noting that my guest had another appointment closely scheduled]  I mustn’t keep you.  I’m glad you’ve come to Chicago.

Davis:   Oh, thank you!

BD:   I’m looking forward to the performance very much.

Davis:   Yes, so am I!

BD:   Thank you for the conversation.

Davis:   You’re welcome.

Currently Music Director of Longwood Opera and Principal Accompanist of the Paul Madore Chorale, Jeffrey Brody enjoys an active musical career as composer, conductor, vocal coach, collaborative pianist and organist. Appointed to the musical staff of Seattle Opera in 1986, he has done the musical preparation of that company’s critically acclaimed production of Wagner’s "Ring", serving as Assistant Conductor and Prompter. He has also done musical preparation for Sarah Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston, Boston Lyric Opera, Opera New England, MIT Chamber Opera, Janus Opera Productions and the Princeton June Opera Festival. Mr. Brody has been Music Director of Longwood Opera since 1998 and was appointed Musical Advisor of the Boston Wagner Society in 2005. He was named Music Director and Organist of Park Avenue Congregational Church, Arlington, MA in 2007 and serves as Staff Accompanist at New England Conservatory.

brody He made his orchestral conducting debut with the Richmond Festival Orchestra in 1995 in a program of all original works. Most recently, he guest-conducted the Salem Philharmonic Orchestra at the invitation of Music Director and Conductor Alan Hawryluk, and is a frequent guest conductor of the Harvard Musical Association Reading Orchestra.  His compositions include two operas, as well as works for orchestra, chorus, chamber music and organ. They have been performed in Boston’s Symphony Hall, Jordan Hall, the Washington National Cathedral, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, the Vienna Konzerthaus, Altenburg and Muenster Cathedrals, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., the Virginia Waterfront International Arts Festival, the prestigious festival "la città, la musica e il sacro" in Venice, the Temple of the Shinji Kai in Shiga, Japan and on National Public Radio.

Recent commissions include "Beowulf", a Musical Legend for soloists, double chrous and large orchestra written for performance in the Vienna Musikvereinsaal under the direction of Maestro Gerhard Track, as well as "Planetarium", a work for the Arlington-Belmont Chamber Chorus premiered in May of 2005 under the direction of Barry Singer. Most recently, Mr. Brody is the recipient of a very generous grant from the Brannen-Cooper Fund of Brannen Brothers Flute Makers for the composition of a three-movement, 29-minute Concerto for Flute and Orchestra premiered in January of 2009 by flutist Judith Braude and the Salem Philharmonic under his direction. Past seasons have brought the world premiere of his opera, "The Measure of Love", hailed by the Boston Herald as a "sure-fire hit"; the premiere performances of his choral work, "O Fairest Love Divine" by the Paul Madore Chorale; the first performances by the Salem Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Alan Hawryluk of his transcriptions for orchestra of three works by Mozart for mechanical organ; the performance of his Concerto for Organ and Orchestra with organist Berj Zamkochian and the State Symphony Orchestra of Lebanon under the direction of Harout Faslian; the Vienna premieres of his "Haec Dies" for Organ, Strings and Timpani as well as his Symphony for Organ, with Zamkochian performing in the Konzerthaus as well as at Vienna's renowned Karlskirche; and the premiere of "Fanfare!", a short orchestral work written for the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Michigan State Symphony Orchestra. The 2004-5 season brought premieres of his "Sinfonietta nel stilo antico" and "The Ballad of the Four Brothers" by the Salem Philharmonic Orchestra. In August 2005 the Harvard Summer Orchestra, under the direction of Judith Zuckerman, played his "Nigun" in Sanders Theater, Cambridge. Highlights of the 2005-6 season included the world premiere of his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, written for Alan Hawryluk, played by the Salem Philharmonic under the direction of the composer. The 2008-9 season brought the premiere of his most recent commission, the Concerto for Flute and Orchestra, by flutist Judith Braude with the Salem Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of the composer, and the world premiere of a song-cycle, "Phantasmagoria" with tenor Christopher Aaron Smith and pianist Terry Decima at New England Conservatory's Brown Hall. The 2009-2010 season brought performances of his works with the Salem Philharmonic Orchestra, the Dirk Hillyer Festival Orchestra, the Harvard Summer Orchestra, the Parkway Concert Orchestra and the Arlington-Belmont Chamber Chorus. The 2010-2011 season brings the premiere of his second opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Longwood Opera, as well as the premiere of his Pezzo Serioso by the Salem Philharmonic Orchestra and premieres of his arrangements for organ, brass quartet and timpani of Vierne's Carillon de Westminster and Rimsky-Korsakov's Procession of the Nobles.

A finalist in the 1999 European International Composers Competition, he has been the recipient of numerous ASCAP special awards. Several of his commissioned choral and organ works have been released on compact disc by the AFKA and SPC labels.  His compositions are published exclusively by Ashbrook Music, Boston.

Mr. Brody is a member of the International Siegfried Wagner Society; the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers; the National Association of Teachers of Singing; the American Guild of Organists, and is a founding member of the Boston Singers Resource, for which he has served as audition adjudicator. In honor of the many years of his artistic collaboration with the late Boston Symphony Orchestra Organist, Berj Zamkochian, the Gomidas Organ Fund presented Mr. Brody with the baton used by Dr. Charles Munch, Music Director and Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1949-1962.

© 1998 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on May 30, 1998.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB over the following few days.  This transcription was made in 2023, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

*     *     *     *     *

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.