Brundibár (Czech colloquialism for a bumblebee) is the name of a children's opera by Jewish Czech composer Hans Krása with a libretto by Adolf Hoffmeister and performed by the children of the concentration camp Theresienstadt in occupied Czechoslovakia.
Krasa 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 Krasa and set designer Frantisek Zelenka had already been transported to Theresienstadt. By July of 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 fortunate to escape Prague in time.
Reunited with the cast in Theresienstadt, Krasa 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 Frantisek 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 September 23rd, 1943 "Brundibar" 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 Brundibar 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.
Most of the participants in the Theresienstadt production, including the composer Krása, were later exterminated in Auschwitz.
The plot of the opera shares elements with fairytales such as Hansel and Gretel and The Town Musicians of Bremen. Aninka (played by Greta Klingsberg) and Pepíček are 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 chases them away. However, with the help of a dog, a cat and a lark, and the children of the town, they are able to chase Brundibar away in turn, and sing in the market square.
The opera contains obvious symbolism in the triumph of the helpless and needy children over the tyrannical organ-grinder, but 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 read: 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 Brundibar with a Hitler moustache. The book was named one of the New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Illustrated Books of 2003.
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 costumes for the new production. The opera premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre where it is being 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.
Criticisms of the Kushner version
While the Kushner version, now off-Broadway, has received massive amounts of overwhelmingly positive media attention, and has brought the story of Brundibar into the public eye, some people who are Brundibar scholars or who were connected with early productions felt that his version is not sufficiently faithful to the original work.
In particular, some have said that his work does not put nearly enough emphasis on the history of the piece. Others, including Ela Weissberger, (the only survivor from the original cast) have voiced concerns that Kushner's version - with its elaborate moving set, lush costumes, characters flying through the air or on stilts, and adult actors playing parts that were written for children - misses the point of Brundibar. As Weissberger pointed out at a speaking engagement for a performance of the traditional version of the piece, there were plenty of fantastic adult singers available, but that was not the point of Brundibar.
Nonetheless, this is the opinion of a minority of people, and even the harshest critics of Mr. Kushner's version freely admit that the newfound publicity the work has enjoyed is largely due to him. Certainly, whatever the accuracy of Mr. Kushner's work, it has helped to keep Brundibar alive. Ms. Weissberger, for example, recently said that Kushner's work was "not her Brundibar," but that it was certainly a valid, well done version of Brundibar and it helped to get people interested in the work again. That, she said, was the most important thing.
The opera has enjoyed increasing popularity in recent years, and has been performed in different versions in England, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Israel, and across the United States.
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 Krasa score and Adolf Hoffmeister dialogue, spliced into the opera new scenes written by Brundibar Scholar and 10th Grade student Colin Killick. These new scenes tell the history of the piece, depicting Hans Krasa and others who worked on the piece in Terezin working on Brundibar, from the first performance of Brundibar in Prague in 1941 all the way up to the Red Cross performance in 1944. Apart from Krasa, one of the most prominent characters in these new scenes is Freidl Brandeis, the art teacher whose students in Terezin created the heart wrenching 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 the both the rehearsals for and the performance of Brundibar for the Red Cross.
The first performances of this version were March 31st and April 1st 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, the only survivor from the original performances, spoke after each performance about her experiences being in the cast of Brundibar and her thoughts as to its message. As did Killick, who spoke about the importance of history and said that "this happens to be about Czechoslovakia in the mid 40's, 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) but they will be made into full blown opera for a production next year. 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.
"Hear My voice" Sources: