Brundibár is a children's opera by Jewish Czech composer Hans Krása with a libretto by Adolf Hoffmeister, originally performed by the children of Theresienstadt concentration camp in occupied Czechoslovakia. The name comes from a Czech colloquialism for a bumblebee.
Krása and Hoffmeister wrote the opera in 1938 for a government competition, but the competition was later cancelled due to political developments. Rehearsals started in 1941 at the Jewish orphanage in Prague, which served as a temporary educational facility for children separated from their parents by the war. In the winter of 1942 the opera was first performed at the orphanage: by this time, composer Krása and set designer František Zelenka had already been transported to Theresienstadt. By July 1943, nearly all of the children of the original chorus and the orphanage staff had also been transported to Theresienstadt. Only the librettist Hoffmeister was able to escape Prague in time.
Reunited with the cast in Theresienstadt, Krása reconstructed the full score of the opera, based on memory and the partial piano score that remained in his hands, adapting it to suit the musical instruments available in the camp: flute, clarinet, guitar, accordion, piano, percussion, four violins, a cello and a double bass. A set was once again designed by František Zelenka, formerly a stage manager at the Czech National Theatre: several flats were painted as a background, in the foreground was a fence with drawings of the cat, dog and lark and holes for the singers to insert their heads in place of the animals' heads. On 23 September 1943, Brundibár premiered in Theresienstadt. The production was directed by Zelenka and choreographed by Camilla Rosenbaum, and was shown 55 times in the following year.
A special performance of Brundibár was staged in 1944 for representatives of the Red Cross who came to inspect living conditions in the camp; what the Red Cross did not know at the time was that much of what they saw during their visit was a show, and that one of the reasons the Theresienstadt camp seemed comfortable was that many of the residents had been deported to Auschwitz in order to reduce crowding during their visit.
Later that year this Brundibár production was filmed for a Nazi propaganda film Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt (The Führer Gives the Jews a City). All of the participants in the Theresienstadt production were herded into cattle trucks and sent to Auschwitz as soon as filming was finished. Most were gassed immediately upon arrival, including the children, the composer Krása, the director Kurt Gerron, and the musicians.
The Brundibár footage from the film is included in the Emmy Award-winning documentary Voices of the Children directed by Zuzana Justman, a Terezin survivor, who sang in the chorus. Ela Weissberger, who played the part of the cat, appears in the film. The footage appears again in As Seen Through These Eyes, a 2009 documentary directed by Hilary Helstein. There Weissberger describes the opera in some detail, noting that the only time that the children were permitted to remove their yellow stars was during a performance.
Excerpt from Berliner Kinderoper production, 2005
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The plot of the opera shares elements with fairytales such as Hansel and Gretel and The Town Musicians of Bremen. Aninka [in English Annette] and Pepíček (Little Joe) are a fatherless sister and brother. Their mother is ill, and the doctor tells them she needs milk to recover. But they have no money. They decide to sing in the marketplace to raise the needed money. But the evil organ grinder Brundibár [who represents Hitler] chases them away. However, with the help of a fearless sparrow, keen cat, and wise dog, and the children of the town, they are able to chase Brundibár away, and sing in the market square.
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The opera contains obvious symbolism in the triumph of the helpless and needy children over the tyrannical organ grinder, but has no overt references to the conditions under which it was written and performed. However, certain phrases were to the audience clearly anti-Nazi. Though Hoffmeister wrote the libretto before Hitler's invasion, at least one line was changed by poet Emil Saudek at Terezin, to emphasize the anti-Nazi message. "While the original said,'He who loves so much his mother and father and his native land is our friend and he can play with us,' Saudek's version reads: 'He who loves justice and will abide by it, and who is not afraid, is our friend and can play with us.'"(Karas, p. 103).
The Kushner version
In 2003 the opera was adapted into a picture book by Tony Kushner with illustrations by Maurice Sendak. Sendak emphasized the symbolism of the opera by drawing the character of Brundibár with a Hitler moustache. The book was named one of the New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Illustrated Books of 2003.
The opera was performed in 2003 at Chicago Opera Theater; directed and designed by Sendak, with Tony Kushner's libretto.
In 2005, the book was turned into a full production of the opera, with libretto by Tony Kushner adapted from Hoffmeister's. Sendak and Kris Stone designed the sets and Robin I. Shane designed the costumes for the new production. The opera premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre where it was performed along with another short Czech opera, Comedy on the Bridge, with music by Bohuslav Martinů and libretto by Tony Kushner adapted from Václav Kliment Klicpera. The opera then moved to the New Victory Theater for its Off-Broadway New York premiere, and Comedy on the Bridge was replaced with a new Kushner play, But the Giraffe. But the Giraffe was about a young girl who was faced with the difficult decision of taking her beloved stuffed giraffe or her uncle's Brundibár score. It served as a curtain raiser for Brundibár. In 2005 and 2011, the children's opera was performed at the Victory Theatre in Evansville, Indiana.
The opera has enjoyed increasing popularity in recent years, and has been performed in different versions in England, Czech Republic, Israel, and across the United States. In 1995 in Germany and in Austria the opera was performed as a part of a school and memory project in cooperation with survivors from Terezín, such as Herbert Thomas Mandl or Eva Hermannová. The United States professional premiere was presented in 1994 by the Washington Opera at the Kennedy Center and followed by performances at the National Holocaust Museum under the direction of Alan Nathan, conductor and Mary Gresock, stage director.
Cherub Company London presented a fully professional UK production at the Riverside Studios, London, in 2001. The production was unusual inasmuch as the children's characters were played by adult actors (Samuel Dutton and Kathryn Fray). The remaining characters, including Brundibár himself (William Wollen), were played by actors on stilts, creating a nightmarish world for the children. The production was directed by Andrew Visnevski and was presented in a double bill with Kafka's The Trial under the title Degenerate! A double-fare to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust.
One American version first performed in 2006 seeks to put the history front and center. Entitled Brundibar: Hear My Voice, this version, which was a co-production of Tucson, Arizona's Arizona Onstage Productions and The BASIS School, uses the original Hans Krása score and Adolf Hoffmeister dialogue. Spliced into the opera are new scenes written by Colin Killick, a high school student who had studied Brundibár. These new scenes tell the history of the piece, depicting Hans Krása and others who worked on the piece in Terezin working on Brundibár, from the first performance of Brundibár in Prague in 1941 all the way up to the Red Cross performance in 1944. Apart from Krása, one of the most prominent characters in these new scenes is Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, the art teacher whose students in Terezin created the heart-rending holocaust children's artwork that has been shown throughout the world. In the Tucson production, all of the children's roles were played by middle and high school students (as in the original) and only the new roles were played by adult actors. The breaks in the original score were written to suggest that the audience are watching both the rehearsals for and the performance of Brundibár for the Red Cross.
The first performances of this version were on March 31 and April 1 at the Temple of Music and Art in Tucson, Arizona, under the direction of veteran touring actor Kevin Johnson. Killick was the associate director, vocal direction was by Ali Renner, and the orchestra was conducted by Martin Majkut. In addition to the new scenes, it also featured projections of artwork from camp inmates (both children and adults) and photographs of Terezin, and a simple but powerful set that had as its dominating feature a large archway reading "Arbeit Macht Frei", which faced away from the audience to give them a sense of being in the camp. Ela Weissberger, a survivor from the original performances (who originally played the role of Kocour, or the Cat), spoke after each performance about her experiences in the cast of Brundibár and her thoughts as to its message. Similarly Killick spoke about the importance of history and said that "this happens to be about Czechoslovakia in the mid '40s, but it could be about Cambodia, or Rwanda, or Darfur, it could be about anywhere there is oppression." For this production, the new scenes were done as a staged reading (the new material is written largely in pentameter, but was read as dialogue).
Weissberger said she thought the new material was very accurate and powerful (she was sent a version of the script, helped to proofread it and correct a few minor historical errors) and audience reaction was intensely positive.
In December 2003 and 2004 respectively, Santa Monica College's Madison Project in conjunction with Los Angeles Opera run children's camp performed Brundibár at Miles Memorial Playhouse, the Museum of Tolerance, and the Santa Monica College 11th street campus, where The Broad Stage has since been built. Survivors of Terezin were in attendance and spoke at all performances about their experiences.
In 2005 and 2006, the Saskatoon Children's Choir (Canada) performed Brundibár in Saskatoon, Regina and Winnipeg, Canada. Dagmar Lieblová and Dasha Lewin, Holocaust survivors and cast members of the original Terezin performances, were present at the Saskatoon and Regina performances, and addressed the audiences. They also visited several schools and spoke to many students.
Another version was performed in Salem, Ohio at the Salem Community Theatre in February, 2006 and also featured a visit from Weissberger.
Ela Weissberger took part in a performance of Brundibár to mark Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) in Vancouver on April 30, 2008. The historic opera was presented by the Children’s Opera Ensemble of the University of British Columbia and the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.
In May, 2009, J*Company Youth Theatre at the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture, Lawrence Family JCC, mounted a production of Brundibár which included, as it's frame, the play Fireflies by Charmaine Spencer. The 80 minute play tells the story artist Freidl Dicker Brandeis, her young students and the performance of the opera for the Red Cross for which she designed the sets.
It was performed in March 2009 at the Detroit Opera House by the Michigan Opera Theater Children's Chorus. The performance was attended by Ela Stein Weissberger. The work will again be presented at the Detroit Opera House, with Ela Stein Weissberger once more appearing in the production, on March 16, 2014.
Another version was performed in Greece in Kozani, from the Public Music School Choir on March 13 and 14, 2010.
Opera Fairbanks (Fairbanks, Alaska) will present this opera November 5, 6 & 7, 2010 by an all-Alaskan, all-children cast. This will include a short presentation by Ela Stein Weissberger, who originated the role of the Cat and is the sole remaining survivor of the original Terezin (Theresienstadt) cast. Musical direction by James Bicigo and stage direction will be by Cindy C. Oxberry of the Washington National Opera.
In February 2010, it was performed at Trinity School at River Ridge in Eagan, MN. The cast and the school were visited by Ela Weissberger.
It was performed by the Sacramento Children's Chorus in spring 2010, and the cast was visited by Ela Weissberger.
In May 2011 it was performed in London by the Alyth Children's Theatre on 2 consecutive days. The first performance was followed by a Yom Hashoah Commemoration Service and the second was preceded by songs from the Holocaust by the Alyth Youth Singers.
It was peformed as part of the Colorado Music Festival's "Rediscovered Masters" program on June 28, 29, 2012 in Boulder, Colorado.
It was performed on January 13, 2012 by Tulsa Youth Opera, the youth training program of Tulsa Opera.
It was also performed on March 22 and 23 2014 by the Northwest Boychoir at the Seattle Children's Theatre.
In April 2014, children from the Walworth Barbour American International School in Even Yehuda, Israel performed a total of six shows. Ela Weissberger, who played the cat in the original performance in Theresienstadt, spent time at the school, attended the rehearsals and performances and spoke to kids as well as the audiences. At the end of the show on April 2, Ela and 13 Holocaust survivors joined the kids on stage and sang the final victory song with them.
In February 2015, children from the Pembroke Academy Of Music (PAM) based in Walworth South London, performed Brundibár in conjunction with the Mahogany Opera Group in the Purcell Room as part of the South Bank’s Imagine Festival.
In June 2015, children from Norwich performed Brundibár in the Norwich Playhouse. Brundibár is produced by Mahogany Opera Group in association with Jubilee Opera and Watford Palace Theatre and presented in Norwich by the Young Norfolk Arts Festival and the Norfolk County Music Education Hub.
Seventh grade students at the Arts Based School, a K-8 charter school in Winston-Salem, NC, annually stage a performance of Brundibár. Their most recent performance was held on Thursday, 22 October 2015.
There are at least six CD recordings of Brundibár available:
- 1991 in Czech. Koch International. rereleased Romantic Robot (RR1991) 2 CD-set: Terezín: The Music 1941-44 by FISYO (Filmový symfonický orchestr) Prague conducted by Mario Klemens and Bambini di Praga led by Bohumil Kulínský; this was the first available recording in Czech from a two-CD set produced by Alexander Goldscheider and released in 1991, which further contains Krása's string trio Tanec together with music from other leading Terezín composers, namely Viktor Ullmann, Pavel Haas and Gideon Klein
- 1993 in Czech: Channel Classics (CCS 5193) CD titled: Composers from Theresienstadt, 1941-1945: Hans Krása's Brundibár and František Domažlický's Czech Songs; Disman Radio Children's Ensemble, Prague, conducted by Jóža Karas - in Czech; no texts 1993.
- 1995 in German: Live recording of the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation ORF of the Austrian Premiere by ARBOS-Company for Music and Theatre in 1995.
- 1996 in English: Arabesque Recordings Z6680: Brundibar and Hebrew and Yiddish Folk Songs; Essex Children's Choir and members of the Vermont Symphony, conducted by Robert DeCormier; 1996 - in English, translation by Jóža Karas.
- 1999 in German: EDA Edition Abseits, www.eda-records.com: Brundibar - Eine Oper fur Kinder; collegium iuvenum, Knabenchor Stuttgart, Madchenkantorei St. Eberhard, conducted by Friedemann Keck; 1999 - two-CD set, in German; the second CD is "Brundibar and the Children of Theresienstadt", a feature with Hannelore Wondschick.
- 2006 in English: Naxos 8.570119; Brundibar and Lori Laitman's "I Never Saw Another Butterfly", under the title Music of Remembrance. Also includes Hans Krása's Overture for Small Orchestra. Northwest Boy Choir, conducted by Gerard Schwarz; 2006 - this recording is in English and is the Tony Kushner version.
- Pearce, Joe Brundibár at Theresienstadt: A People's Struggle to Maintain a Level of Musical Culture in the Face of Imminent Peril Opera Quarterly (1994) 10 (4): 39-50
- "Yale Bulletin and Calendar". Yale.edu. 2006-02-03. Retrieved 2013-08-25.
- Karas, Jora Music in Terezin, 1941-1945 (1985), New York: Beaufort Books.
- Speeches by Ela Weissberger, Tucson, AZ, March #1, April 1, and April 2
"Hear My Voice" sources
- Gassen, Sarah Garecht. (2006) "Brundibar Written to Inspire Hope", Arizona Daily Star
- Reel, James. (2006) "Whoever Loves Justice", Tucson Weekly
- Summary from Northeastern University
- "Germans perform Holocaust opera" from the BBC
- Berkeley Repertory Theatre production
- Brundibár and the Children of Terezín (PBS)
- Brundibár recording on Romantic Robot 2-CD set Terezín: The Music 1941-44
- Survivor Eva Hermannová on the rehearsals and performances in Terezín from the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF) of the ARBOS-production directed by Herbert Gantschacher
- Information on the children's opera Brundibar in the online exhibition of the Jewish Museum Prague