Opera from the 1930s becomes graphic novel

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

*Images are used with permission from Dark Horse/Berger and Superfan Promotions LLC.*

Art can flower under the strangest circumstances. Take, for example, “Der Kaiser von Atlantis” with music by Viktor Ullmann and a libretto by Peter Kien. The one-act opera was written in 1943 when Kien and Ullmann were prisoners in the Terezín concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. Neither lived to see the opera performed, but their work inspired the recently published graphic novel “Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis” (Dark Horse/Berger) written by journalist Dave Maass and artist Patrick Lay. 26-1 DEATH_STRIKES_PG_11 WEB (Used with permission from Dark Horse/Berger and Superfan Promotions LLC)

Maass first discovered the opera more than 20 years ago. “In the late ‘90s, the music label Decca started re-recording music suppressed by the Nazis as part of an ‘Entartete Music’ series, and this included Peter Kien and Viktor Ullmann’s ‘Der Kaiser von Atlantis,’” he said in an e-mail interview. “They hired Art Spiegelman (‘Maus’) to design the cover and that’s what caught my eye as I was wandering around a Best Buy 20 years ago. I was a teenage mallrat, listening to punk and metal, and I was just discovering that there were whole other genres of music – including avant garde classical – that were just as rebellious.”

The opera’s plot focuses on an Atlantis that never sank, but rather became a technologically advanced dictatorship. Emperor Overall, who is so isolated he never sees another human, declares all-out war on the world, but Death, who is a character in the opera, has had enough and goes on strike. That means that, even though the fighting doesn’t stop, no one can die. Two humans – a soldier and a worker who were once enemies – work together to overthrow the emperor and change the world. 

These unusual elements made Maass believe the opera could be easily adapted to other formats. “When I first read and listened to the opera, I was struck by how un-opera-like it felt,” he noted. “It’s so political, so contemporary, so darkly comedic, so filled with elements from genre fiction that it begged for an interpretation in another popular medium. As it turns out, Kien was both a writer and an illustrator, and that might explain why it works so well as a graphic novel. For the art, we drew as much as possible from Kien’s own illustrations that survived the Holocaust and from the architecture and artifacts that we photographed while visiting Terezín. We also borrowed a few of Kien’s other poems to fill out some of the gaps in the libretto.”

26-2 DEATH_STRIKES_PG_14 WEB (Used with permission from Dark Horse/Berger and Superfan Promotions LLC)

The transition to the graphic format was a relatively smooth one. “We actually didn’t change that much, although we did expand it quite a lot,” he said. “The structure and narrative flow is all intact, but we did deepen the characters significantly, giving them backstories and stronger arcs, and of course we updated the language for contemporary audiences. But whenever we added anything to the story, we always made sure it enhanced the existing themes, especially the interplay of life and death during wartime and the ways technology can be misused by authoritarian regimes.”

Maass believes that the opera’s story is as relevant today as it was when it was written. “‘Der Kaiser von Atlantis’ serves as a warning against devaluing life and trivializing death,” he noted. “It asks us to consider what we would do instead of war if killing wasn’t possible. And it reminds us to question the motives and methods of those who would lead us into violence. Ultimately, Kien and Ullmann wrote a satire that has universal truths about authoritarianism and war, and so readers will interpret it differently depending on where they are and what’s happening in the world. But at the very least, I hope people come away with a greater appreciation of the defiant power of art and its potential to outlive us all.”

The writer did say that he doesn’t see “Death Strikes” as an addition to Holocaust literature. Rather he and Lay wanted “to give a second life to a creative narrative work that stands on its own outside of place and time. I hope folks will find beauty and joy and laughter in this book, dark as it is, and the inspiration to keep dreaming even in the bleakest of times.”