When L.A. Opera music director James Conlon conducts two one-act operas at the Colburn School this weekend, the occasion will mark the first time that his company’s Domingo Thornton Young Artist program and musicians from the Colburn Conservatory have worked together. The program also marks the first time that Ernst Krenek’s “The Secret Kingdom” and Viktor Ullmann’s “The Emperor of Atlantis” have shared a bill.
Both are examples of music that the Nazis forbade, a genre especially dear to Conlon’s heart. Yet more than a common enemy unites these two short operas -– the first composed in the mid-1920s, the second in the midst of World War II.
“Both of these operas are fairy tales, and the dramaturgical link is that they both involve a ruler who abdicates,” Conlon said. “And this is why I wanted to do this pairing: I saw through my previous experience that you can set off works in a special way when you find the right connection.”
The conductor describes Krenek’s “Secret Kingdom” as “delightfully comic and very touching,” adding, “it gives you – as the court jester tells you at the end – a lot to think about. The meaning of life is to be found in something quite different from power.”
Ullmann’s “Emperor of Atlantis” is also a fantasy, but it’s a much darker one. “It’s about the Grim Reaper and the Great Dictator, and then the Grim Reaper goes on strike,” Conlon said. “I imagine it as a Freudian wish-fulfillment dream on the part of Ullmann to convince Hitler to desist. Yet you have a witty and deeply moving affirmation of life here as well.”
-- David Mermelstein
Photo: Conductor James Conlon rehearses with musicians of the Colburn Conservatory. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times