Seattle’s Music of Remembrance is hosting several performances this week of Tony Kushner’s new version of Brundibar, the children’s opera performed at the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
If truth be told, this is not the full-fledged production featuring Maurice Sendak’s extraordinary sets which was performed earlier this year in New York and New Haven. A Broadway production opened last night which the NY Times reviewed. This earlier NY Times review of the New Haven production provides sumptuous photographs of the Sendak set.
Seattle’s is a lower budget project with makeshift sets. But the musicianship and performance are still remarkable. Most powerful to me was the final scene in which the children unite to vanquish the bully Brundibar. In its power and vision, it reminds me of the closing of another play dealing with deep social injustice, Waiting for Lefty, in which the cast shouts almost jubilantly, “Strike! Strike!”
Though Brundibar still menaces at the close of this opera, the prevailing spirit is one of liberation from the yoke of tyranny. Even in the depths of the Holocaust (which snuffed out the life of Hans Krasa, the composer and so many of the young performers), Krasa could dream of a blessed day of redemption. Think how much hope this required in those circumstances. In my opinion, it is one of the great triumphs of the human spirit that people like Krasa created the works they did. And this is how one of the child performers described the experience of singing it night after night:
“When we sang, we forgot where we were. We forgot hunger, we forgot all the troubles that we had to go through,” Mrs. Weissberger says. “When we sang Brundibar, we didn’t have to wear the Jewish star on our clothing.”
Christopher Isherwood’s NY Times review captures both the malice and triumphant hope of Brundibar:
Mr. Kushner and Mr. Sendak, who previously collaborated on a children’s book inspired by the opera, interrupt the exultant last chorus to allow the lovably hateful villain a final threat. “Nothing ever works out neatly,” he says. “Bullies don’t give up completely. One departs, the next appears, and we shall meet again my dears!”
Too true. The noxious voices of bullies — and worse — ring out through history. But as the unlikely survival of this opera suggests, the joy and beauty that music and art express can outlast evil even when they cannot defeat it
Also gracing this performance was the remarkable Ela Weissberger (quoted above), who performed the role of the Cat in all 55 performances of the opera at Terezin. She spoke to the audience for twenty minutes or so about her life in the camp and afterward. Not only is she a remarkable raconteur, a gracious human being and a delightfully humorous interview subject, it is astonishing that she’s even here to tell us what happened. She survived a remarkable two years at the camp. Of 15,000 children at the camp, only a few hundred survived. Of twenty-eight girls in her cottage at the camp, only three remained at the time of liberation. She survived due to the kindness of a Righteous Gentile, who perhaps was also a shrewd farmer-businessman:
In an eerie similarity to the story made famous in Schindler’s List, a German farmer saved the lives of Ela, her mother and her older sister. Her mother and sister worked in his agriculture fields.
“He went to the commander of the camp and said, look if you don’t want to lose the crop in the fields, you have to keep my group together,” Mrs. Weissberger says. His workers were spared going to the gas chambers. Her mother was allowed to scavenge for anything edible that was left behind in the fields, thus augmenting their meager diet.
Of the 64 members of her family, four survived the war.
Weissberger wrote of the kindnesses provided her and the other children by their teachers including an art teacher, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who would bring them to the window of their classroom and say: “Children, look out this window to the mountains that surround us. Let us dream that you will be one of the ones who gets to see what is beyond them and leaves this place alive.”
Weissberger has written her own children’s book about Brundibar and Terezin, The Cat With a Yellow Star, which I’ve just ordered for my five year old. If it’s half as charming as the author is in real life it will be quite a remarkable book.
The Seattle Brundibar performances have been recorded and will be released on the Naxos label.
Ramona Whaley says
I just had an email from J. Molzer- & discovered the Monmouth Conservatory in NJ produced Brundibar again. The 1st time was in 1987 I think- & my daughter Elisabeth was the cat. Ela gave her a hug “Theresienstadt Juden geld’- both of which she has cherished-
If possible, we would like to be in touch again.