'Brundibar': Fairy-tale opera has horrific past | St. Louis Public Radio

'Brundibar': Fairy-tale opera has horrific past

Nov 15, 2009

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 15, 2009 - At an early rehearsal for the fairy-tale opera "Brundibar," its stage director asked a boy soprano to imagine losing track of his sister on a walk home in the dark.

Director Doug Scholz-Carlson asked singer John Schultz, 12, to look for his character's sister. In a large rehearsal hall at Opera Theatre of St. Louis in Webster Groves, John turned his body and spun his head in an anxious search. The director stopped John and suggested that instead of looking at the bare room, he should imagine a real place near his home where he might get caught at night.

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"I'd pick the Grand Basin in Forest Park," said John, a student at Wydown Middle School, near the park. He asked John to describe what he "saw" from the edge of Grand Basin. John slowly turned his head as he pointed out that the sister might be in the dark shadows under a grove of park trees to his right, or on the park's golf course in front of him, or hidden by a trash can near the Grand Basin staircase, or behind him at in the shadow of the St. Louis Art Museum. John was convincing in the role of the scared Pepicek.

Since early fall, 26 St. Louis singing actors have been rehearsing "Brundibar." All in the cast are 17 years old or younger. Most are seasoned singing actors, several appearing in the opera company's "La Boheme" last spring. Others have sung in various Muny, Stages and Variety Club productions. The orchestra will be made up of members of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra.

The cast worked with voice teachers and studied in their own imaginative ways. To move with feline flexibility down to her tip toes in her role as a cat, Marissa Pineda, 9, said that she's been observing her own pet. With a proud Cheshire Cat smile she lifted her chin and said, "I watched my cat catch a mouse."

The fairy tale unfolds as Pepicek and Aninka, a brother and sister, need to make money by singing to buy milk for their sick mother. But Brundibar - even his name can be sung to sound evil - the village organ grinder tries to block them. And worse. With the help of the talking cat, a talking dog, a talking sparrow and caring adults including an ice cream vendor, the fairy tale story ends happily. Of course.

After performances, children might leave with the hope they can team up to overcome bullies.

The cast ends the opera singing:

"He who loves his dad, mother and native land, who wants the tyrant's end, join us hand in hand and be our welcome friend."

Music in a Nazi Camp

Like some cautionary fairy tales, "Brundibar" has deep, dark resonance. Schools across the region are organizing weeks of study around this opera's unique history.

"Brundibar" was sung 55 times by Jewish children in a Nazi concentration camp in the Czech Republic between 1942 and 1944. Theresienstadt, near Prague, was a ghetto concentration camp for Jews, most of whom eventually were slammed onto railcars and sent to their death at Nazi extermination camps.

The bully character "Brundibar" became a symbol for Hitler to the cast and audiences at Theresienstadt, said Ela Weissberger, the only known survivor of the opera's cast. (Weissberger, now of New York City, will speak to audiences after each performance at the Touhill. She'll take children's questions.) The Nazi guards who used bully tactics daily on Theresienstadt detainees did not "get it." Or, perhaps, guards feared associating the leader they were supposed to venerate with a tyrant. Their show went on.

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The Opera Theatre cast first assembled, director Scholz-Carlson, himself a father of children ages 14, 11 and 8, talked to the young singers about the Holocaust. Each cast member received a slip of paper with the name and brief biographical material of a Jewish child who had been sent to Theresienstadt. Most also got a photo of the child. Biographies came from archives of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Holocaust Museum at Vad Yashem in Jerusalem.

"I asked them to think about 'their' child," the director said. In interviews with the cast, it became clear they took their assignment to heart.

"This opera is a fairy tale but it also is different because of its history in real life, because it is about real people, its old cast," said Berklea Going 11, who plays the sparrow. At rehearsal, as she gracefully lifted her wings to mime flight, she said she thought about the many children who sang the bird role at Theresienstadt. Most children who sang in the opera at the concentration camp eventually were killed at Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied, southern Poland.

"I'm privileged to play this and am dedicating it to those who didn't get a chance to live," said Going, a student at St. Roch Parish Elementary School in the city's West End.

In early rehearsals director Scholz-Carlson told the cast that the Jewish adults at the camp shared their talents with concerts, poetry readings and lectures. Many adults taught children secretly. Jewish families tried to prayerfully observe the Sabbath in secret.

"They even sang the Verdi 'Requiem' and the next day 200 of them went off in the rail cars to Auschwitz to the gas chambers," Scholz-Carlson said.

In 1942 Krasa, a respected composer, was living in Prague when the Nazis arrested him because he was Jewish and sent him to Theresienstadt. He secretly brought his piano score of "Brundibar" to the concentration camp.

Krasa had begun the opera in 1938 for a Czech government education department children's opera competition. The Nazi invasion of his country cancelled any award announcements. A Czech orphanage gave "Brundibar" its first performance, which the composer missed.

Krasa became director of music at Theresienstadt, where the Nazi's had sent many artists. He and Frantisek Zelenka, a former Czech National Theatre stage manager, rehearsed a cast of interred Jewish children in "Brundibar." He orchestrated his music for the assortment of instruments found at the camp.

On Sept. 23, 1943, Krasa heard his opera for the first time. Its cast kept changing because children regularly were deported to death camps. For the hour that they were on stage, the Jewish children had one small freedom. Their captors did not make them wear the yellow stars that branded all Jews under Nazi law.

"It's really sad how the children suffered in olden times," said Marissa, a Dewey International Elementary School student who sings the cat. "My scout troop saw 'The Diary of Ann Frank' and it was really sad. Really sad."

A New Preface

Krasa's music is sophisticated. It requires talented, focused child singers. Just when the music begins to sound sweet and childlike, the composer abandons his key and inserts a range of minor notes to remind listeners of the story's insecurity, fear and evil.

"His music is complex, very modern," the production's music director Greg Ritchey said. "Krasa loved early 20th-century French composers and you can hear that."

The two-act opera is short. So, Opera Theatre, which previously produced the opera in 1997, has added a new, original theatrical preface based on recently published diaries of a young Theresienstadt resident, Petr Ginz. He was the son of a Jewish-Czech father and a Christian-Czech mother. First, his dad was taken by the Nazis; then, in 1942 when Petr turned 14, the Nazis sent him -- without his mother -- to the camp. The gifted teen had written and illustrated a novel before he went to the camp. Once there, he edited a weekly magazine called Vedem.

Opera Theatre's production highlights his community participation and takes poetic license by melding Petr into the opera production. He didn't actually sing in the opera. When he was 15, the Nazis gassed Petr at Auschwitz.

Ritchey is impressed with his young St. Louis cast. They were selected after 100 area children auditioned in two rounds. In early fall at first rehearsals singers stood around his grand piano singing parts as he corrected their meter, beat, volume and enunciation. He is direct with them.

"Kids don't like you to be dishonest with them," Ritchey said. "Tell them what is needed. Treat them like an adult, but keep it simple."

School Audience Preparation

Opera Theatre Of St. Louis' education department held a workshop last month for teachers who are bringing students to the performances. The opera has a study guide to help teachers and parents link the opera to many classroom subjects. It can be downloaded at https://www.opera-stl.org/EducationAndOutreach_YouthEducationPrograms_YoungPeoplesOpera.aspx

Classroom teachers can use the opera field trip as a bridge to teach about the Holocaust and World War II, literary drama structure, the visual arts, current events, peace-making skills and opera.

Fox Middle School in Arnold is one of several schools that took students on a field trips to the Holocaust Museum at the Jewish Community Center in Creve Coeur.

While the youngest singers may think of genocide as being in "olden times," some school groups studied recent genocides in Rwanda, the Balkans and Darfur in preparation for the opera.

Teens in St. Louis' large Bosnian Muslim community don't need books to learn about genocide. Many had relatives who were massacred in 1995 at Srebrenica. That horrific tragedy again is making headlines as Radovan Karadzic, the president of the Bosnian Serbs from 1992 to 1996, stands trial in The Hague international courts for genocide and ethnic cleansing. Those students might see the organ grinder as Karadzic.

Many working on "Brundibar" hope that the opera will encourage children to stand up to tyrants, now and when they are adults.

"I think about Darfur all the time," said director Scholz-Carlson. "It's genocide, why doesn't it get more attention?"

Patricia Rice is a freelance journalist who has long written on opera.