A hopeful children’s opera from a Nazi concentration camp

Brundibár, a children’s opera that debuted in the worst place imaginable, comes to Reno with a message of tolerance

Members of the Reno Philharmonic Youth Orchestra rehearse for the children’s opera <i>Brundibár</i>, which debuted at a concentration camp during World War II.

Members of the Reno Philharmonic Youth Orchestra rehearse for the children’s opera Brundibár, which debuted at a concentration camp during World War II.

Photo By Nick Higman

Brundibár was originally performed in a concentration camp. The composer, Hans Krása, had a completed draft of the children’s opera before he was forcibly relocated, in August 1942, to the Terezin concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. He revised the opera in Terezin, partially out of necessity. He was working mostly from memory and had to adapt to the rather meager instrumentation available in the camp.

But Brundibár was performed 55 times in Terezin. The opera offered a few brief moments of solace for the children withering in the squalid, cramped, inhumane environment of the concentration camp—a place where children were forced to dress in the rags of their dead friends’ clothes, as their own fell to tatters.

The opera’s Terezin run featured a rotating cast, as many of the child performers were relocated to another camp: Auschwitz, an extermination camp, where murder was conducted by assembly line. Krása himself was transferred to Auschwitz and promptly murdered in October 1944.

A fairytale opera
Brundibár is an uplifting piece of music, all the more so because it lifts against such inordinate odds. The music is largely upbeat and cheerful. It tells a simple fairytale plot of good overcoming evil: Two impoverished children, anglicized to Annette and Little Joe, go on a journey to procure milk for their ailing mother. In order to earn money to buy the milk, they take up singing in the marketplace. But they must compete with a greedy, evil organ grinder, Brundibár, a character so vile and with such a mustache that he clearly represents Hitler. Brundibár refuses to share his busking turf. But with the help of a sparrow, a cat, a dog and other children, Annette and Little Joe run Brundibár out of town and take up their voices in song.

It’s a story about triumph over the one true evil of the world: the tyrants of intolerance—the very villains that held the real-life children enslaved. The opera was a rebellious fantasy for the children, who easily understood its transparent allegory and symbolism.

A unique collaboration
Now, for the first time, Brundibár will be in Nevada. The opera will be performed a half-dozen times at Southside School and once at Wingfield Park. The collaboration among local youth arts organizations involved in the production is remarkable.

The cast and chorus are drawn from the Nevada Opera Youth Chorus. The Reno Philharmonic Youth Orchestra provides the accompanying instrumentation. The sets and costumes, as well as promotional materials and other creative input, come from the Holland Project and Youth ArtWorks. In all, more than 60 young people will be involved in the production.

Additionally, folks from Brüka Theatre are helping with acting advice, a number of other local businesses and organizations have contributed financially, and the production has received a blessing and publicity from the organization that claims ownership of the month of July, Artown.

The project was initiated by Nevada Opera’s executive director William Russell. His passion for it is unabashed and infectious. He first encountered Brundibár while visiting the Czech Republic as a singer touring Europe. For Russell, the underlying theme of tolerance is deep and resonant and, in conversation, he returns to it again and again.

The Nevada Opera Youth Chorus, background, and the Reno Philharmonic Youth Orchestra rehearse for <i>Brundibár</i>.

Photo By Nick Higman

“To cure any societal problem,” he says, “You must start with the children. … I don’t think people are born with intolerance. You have to learn that. … But you can also learn to be more tolerant.”

Another facet of this unique project is that Ela Weissberger, who, as a young girl in Terezin, originated the role of The Cat—one of the central roles—and appeared in all 55 performances, will be present at the July 21 performance at Wingfield Park. Weissberger has published a book, The Cat with the Yellow Star, detailing her experiences in Terezin. She and author and Holocaust survivor Stephen Nasser will be making appearances throughout mid-July at local libraries and Jewish Temples, as well as a book signing at Sundance Bookstore on July 26.

The cast and crew
Working with the cast and chorus are musical director Kris Engstrom and director Androo Allen, a Brüka veteran whose resume includes a stint on the long-running Australian TV show Neighbours as well as directing musicals at Billinghurst Middle School.

“It’s always exciting working with kids … finding their passion,” says Allen. “And because this is a summer program, it’s extra exciting because they all really want to do it.”

The young performers taking part in the production say that though the rehearsals have been a lot of fun, the message of the opera strikes a chord.

“It’s our way of telling the community not to let it happen again,” says Anna Scarbrough, the almost-but-not-quite 13-year-old (in August), who portrays Annette in the production.

“It’s so symbolic of what they went through,” says Aren Long, 11, who portrays Little Joe. For Long, the story remains relevant today: “Bullies are a big problem these days.”

In addition to the performance of the opera, the production will feature young people reading poems from I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a compilation of poems and artwork made by the children of Terezin. The reading of the poems will be accompanied by projections of the original artwork. And Holland Project will be conducting tolerance workshops after selected performances at the Southside School.

The defeat of tyranny
One of the great mysteries of the opera is why the Nazis allowed it to be performed at all. Perhaps it was because Brundibár provided the Nazis with an opportunity to bamboozle the world and actually use the play against the Jewish people. Near the end of the war, as rumors had started to circulate around the world that the Nazis were conducting a systematic genocide, Terazin was the subject of a Nazi-produced propaganda film.

The Nazis invited members of the Red Cross to a performance of Brundibár as part of an effort to convince them that the people living in Terezin were happy and well-treated. The Nazis also dressed up the camp with fake store fronts and cafes and, to further forge an appearance of hospitable conditions, the Nazis addressed the issue of overcrowding in Terezin—by transferring many of the residents to Auschwitz.

Through the deception of the members of the Red Cross and through the film, Terezin: A Documentary Film of the Jewish Resettlement, the Nazis did actually convince some members of the global community that the starving, condemned prisoners in their concentration camps were actually living in relative comfort.

But perhaps the Nazis allowed the opera because they viewed Brundibár, not with hate, but with the real opposite of love: indifference. They simply did not care. Despite whatever actions these children might take, whatever songs they might sing, their lives were forfeit. But these local performances of Brundibár affirm a historical axiom beyond the spiritual grasp of a fascist: Music, especially music matched to a message of hope—unlike the drab enforcers of murderous law—will live on.