In 2009 I wrote this story about an Opera Omaha production of the children’s opera Brundibar, whose back story and very existence is remarkable given the fact the original piece was written and performed amid the throes of the Holocuast. The engaging work is all the more remarkable for being a serious social-political critique of Nazi and Hitler in the guise of a metaphorical children’s story. The aching humanism of the fable is palpable.
Art Trumps Hate: ‘Brundinar’ Children’s Opera Survives as Defiant Testament from the Holocaust
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha area youths performing the children’s opera Brundibar this week find themselves linked to some potent history and to a spirit of defiance transcending even the most horrific circumstances.
Czech composer Hans Krasa scored the operatic fable in 1938. With a libretto by Adolph Hoffmeister, it was first staged at a Prague Jewish orphanage. Germany’s 1939 invasion brought anti-Jewish decrees. By late ‘41 the Nazis’ forced Jews into ghettos, dispossessing them of their homes, belongings, livelihoods and freedom.
Amid the chaos, Krasa’s score went missing. He and other artists ended up in Terezin, a fortified garrison town. Homes and barracks meant for 4,000 housed 60,000 men, women, children. The unsanitary conditions, scarcity of food and harsh treatment made a perilous, hopeless life for inhabitants targeted for death camps.
One respite was the music, theater and dance prisoners were allowed to perform. Art flourished in this dead zone. When Krasa’s found score was smuggled in, Brundibar became a show piece for the Nazis, who cruelly used Terezin’s creative culture as “proof” its inmates were well-treated. Infamously, the Nazis paraded Brundibar for an International Red Cross team and a propaganda film.
But for Jews Brundibar took on symbolic meaning in direct opposition to such distortions. The fable’s Pepicek and Aninku try buying milk for their sick mother. They’re foiled by Brundibar, a loud, evil, buffoon-like bully patterned after Hitler. The allegorical community unites to defeat the hateful tyrant. Just as the themes of oppression and resistance took on added import then, the opera’s tragic context and fate give it deeper meaning today. Krasa, the musicians and much of the cast went to their deaths at Auschwitz.
Brundibar’s past and present are joined in the current Opera Omaha and Institute for Holocaust Education (IHE) co-production at the Rose Theater. Bass-baritone David Ward portrays Brundibar. Area students comprise the rest of the cast. Tying things together is guest Ela Weissberger, the original Cat in all 55 Terezin productions. She’s speaking before each performance this week.
More than 9,000 Omaha school kids are expected to see the opera by week’s end. The lone public performance is this Saturday at 6:30 p.m.
Ela, now one of only two Terezin cast members still alive, said by phone, “After the last performance my friends were taken to their deaths to the gas chambers. It feels sometimes to me a very long time ago, but sometimes I feel like it happened yesterday. I always thought this little opera went with them but if it’s performed here it will never be forgotten. I think Brundibar has became a memorial for those children and with every performance people are reminded that something like that happened, that they are not here, and I feel a duty to speak for them.”
“You need to know about what was actually happening and why this show was put on before you can actually put it on. That’s very important,” said Elizabeth Lieberman,. 17, who plays Cat. As helpful as that education was, Liebermann said, “I don’t think we can possibly imagine like it really was.” Scott Goldberg, who plays Pepicek, said, “We can think, we can try, but it’s so much different.”To inform the student cast of Brundibar’s heavy back story, IHE director Beth Seldin Dotan gave them a power point presentation.
Seldin Dotan, whose Institute is celebrating its 10th year, said, “These kids get it. They understand that even under the most dire situation there were people who presented a show like this within the ghetto. When they sing the victory song on stage the hope is they feel they can make a difference as an individual and as a group, and hopefully they present that to the audience. One of the most important things we do at the Institute is educate people about what happened and how we can make a difference to change that.”
Some Brundibar principals have personal stakes in the story. Sarah Kutler, 12, is the grand-daughter of Holocaust survivor Bea Karp of Omaha. Stage director Helen Binder lost many elders in the Shoah. Binder said, “The one thing I felt I couldn’t do as a director is direct the history. I can’t direct the piece with the history looming over it. If the audience knows the history it makes it that much more poignant but I can’t direct it as somber, sad, they’re-all-going-to-their-deaths. I have to direct it the way Krasa wrote it and intended it, so I’ve tried infusing it with things that make kids laugh and really go for the joy in it.”
“It’s very much a children’s piece. I think the music is very original and very appropriate. It’s sophisticated, but it’s just right for a young cast and for its audience,” said conductor Hal France, “and I think that in a way is what makes it powerful, because it is quite bright.”
For Seldin Dotan, this collaboration is “very meaningful” because it realizes a long-held dream of putting on Brundibar. It’s also a coming out for the Institute. “I feel after 10 years we’ve grown up. The response of 69 schools bringing their students and 70 volunteers and tons of sponsors is just magic. What we’ve found is that people wanted to get to close to this.” An Institute-devised guide was provided schools in preparation for students seeing the opera.
- A story of hope amid the horrors of Holocaust (pbpulse.com)
- A mission to revive lost notes from the Holocaust (boston.com)
- The schoolgirl who survived the Holocaust by fooling the Nazis (guardian.co.uk)
- From the Archives: Opera Comes Alive Behind the Scenes at Opera Omaha Staging of Donizetti’s ‘Maria Padilla’ Starring Rene Fleming (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)