By Hans Krása
Performed by the Michigan Opera Theatre Children’s Chorus, directed by Suzanne Mallare Acton.
Brundibár will be preceded by Lilies Among Thorns, a memorial play in poetry, picture, and song. The play’s Gatherer collects the Flowers, undying creations that endure from the Shoah. A narrative builds of A Little Boy, beginning in the garden of his happy home and ending in Theresienstadt, with the dark prospect of an eastward train looming. The intertwined artworks are all “lilies among thorns" (a phrase taken from the Biblical Song of Songs)—flowers that miraculously sprouted in a land with no water, testaments to the human will to create even in the face of destruction, and to sing out when others threaten to silence, as the children do at the end of Brundibár.
At the heart of Brundibár (Czech for “bumblebee”) are a brother and sister, Pepíček and Aninku. Their mother has fallen ill and the siblings set out to find milk to save her. Without money to buy it, they try singing on the street—but are stopped by the despotic organ grinder Brundibár, who wants the town square to himself. A singing Sparrow, Cat and Dog, along with a crowd of schoolchildren, come to the aid of the siblings. Their lullaby of a hundred united voices overpowers the drone of the organ grinder, and the siblings finally earn what they need to buy “milk for Mommy.” All join in a chorus of triumph over evil, the same triumph for which the children of Theresienstadt ardently hoped when they assembled onstage in 1943: “You’ll find that trouble ends / When you rely on friends!”
The words and music of Brundibár were written in 1938-1939 by a pair of Jewish Czech intellectuals: the poet Adolf Hoffmeister and the composer Hans Krása. Before it could be performed at the Prague Jewish orphanage where its creators had been invited to debut the work, Krása was transported to the Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt. The son of the orphanage director soon followed, smuggling a priceless treasure: the piano score of Brundibár. He gave it to Krása, who wrote a new orchestration for the few instruments available in Theresienstadt. Krása also penned his Overture for Small Orchestra—used in the MOT production to open Brundibár—while interned in the camp It was premiered in the attic of the Magdeburg barrack, its cast made up of child prisoners. Brundibár went on to receive many performances in the camp, and was even shown to a visiting Red Cross delegation and recorded by the Nazis for a propaganda film. They meant to use the production as proof of the “model ghetto” they had created for Europe’s Jews. Meanwhile, Krása was being prepared for removal to Auschwitz, where he and most of the young cast would perish.
Among the few who survived was Ela Stein (now Weissberger), who played the Cat as a thirteen-year old girl in Theresienstadt. The Michigan Opera Theatre is supremely honored to have her as a guest at this production, where she will speak to the audience about the experience of putting on the opera in the camp. For Ela and her cherished friends in the cast and audience (most of whom she would never see again), Brundibár was a chance to escape from their nightmare and be flown, for one precious hour, into a world of music and imagination, where no evil could touch them.
For this production, the MOTCC will perform a new translation by Tony-winning American playwright Tony Kushner, originally written for a production designed by Maurice Sendak, which the two transformed into a picture book. It renders the jocular, jangling Czech of the original into a similarly playful English idiom, brimming with wordplay.
DESCRIPTION OF THE PERFORMANCE
The Michigan Opera Theatre Children's Chorus performance of Brundibár will be preceded by a short play, penned by the director Michael Yashinsky, which reveals the historical context of the opera in a poetic and original way. Through intertwined, dramatic presentations of actual poetry, song, and visual art created in the Nazi camps and ghettos, the audience discovers the astonishing historical circumstances of the fifty-five Theresienstadt performances of Brundibár. All of these creations were "Lilies among thorns" (a phrase taken from the Biblical Song of Songs, also the title of this playlet)—flowers that somehow sprouted in a land with no water, testaments to the human will to create even in the face of destruction.
The playlet will be followed by an historic appearance from Holocaust survivor Ela Stein-Weissberger, who, as a young girl interned in Theresienstadt, performed the role of the Cat in Brundibár. She will speak to the audience of her unforgettable story and her memories of her dear friends and castmates in Brundibár, most of whom did not live through the war.
Ms. Weissberger will then introduce the opera, performed by the marvelously talented singer-actors of the Michigan Opera Theatre Children's Chorus, conducted by Dianna Hochella and directed by Mr. Yashinsky, in a production that flickers and dances as a brightly-colored flame emerged from darkness. The overture used is the composer Hans Krása's Overture for small orchestra, composed in Theresienstadt. The translation used is that of the Tony-winning American playwright Tony Kushner, which renders the jocular, jangling Czech of the original into a similarly playful English idiom, brimming with cunning wordplay.
The whole performance will be about an hour long, and will be followed by a chance for the audience to ask questions of the cast and Ms. Weissberger. Appropriate for families.