On YouTube, there’s some grainy video posted under the title “Brundibár clip from Terezín.” Lasting just one minute, the black-and-white footage features a choir of approximately 40 children singing heartily in what appears to be an amateur theatrical production.
It looks innocent enough, but the film has a devastating history. The scene was captured in 1944 in a Nazi concentration camp called Theresienstadt, located in what is now the Czech Republic. The young singers were presenting a new children’s opera called “Brundibár.”
Within weeks, most of these children were sent to die at Auschwitz, along with “Brundibár” composer Hans Krása.
But the music itself survived, heard again this week thanks to a new staging in Minneapolis. “Brundibár” will be performed by the young artists from Project Opera, Minnesota Opera’s training program for pre-college singers.
Written in 1938, four years before Krása was sent to Theresienstadt, “Brundibár” tells the story of a fatherless sister and brother who need milk for their sick mother. The children sing for money in the marketplace of their small Czech village, but they get chased off by the evil organ-grinder Brundibár. In the end, though, the youngsters outwit Brundibár with the help of animals and other local children.
The opera’s dark symbolism was not lost on the inmates of Theresienstadt. Of particular resonance was the Brundibár character.
“Everyone knew he represented Hitler,” said Hungarian conductor Iván Fischer in a short “Brundibár” documentary, created in 2009 for the Budapest Festival Orchestra. The actor playing Brundibár even wore a mustache in the Theresienstadt production — “perhaps not a coincidence,” Fischer noted.
Valerie Wick, 14, plays the Cat in Project Opera’s new staging. Faced with performing a work with such a troubling history, the Twin Cities teen turned to the internet to probe deeper into the opera’s story.
“Personally, I found a lot of stuff that I wasn’t super-aware of, specifically about the concentration camp that it was performed in,” she said.
The “Brundibár” clip was commissioned for a Nazi propaganda movie, Wick explained. The film’s unofficial title was “The Führer Gives the Jews a Town.”
The movie’s aim was simple — to create the misleading impression that inmates at Theresienstadt were happy residents of a purpose-built new settlement provided by the Nazi authorities, rather than a walled ghetto and concentration camp with no hope for escape.
“They [the Nazis] had ‘Brundibár’ performed for the Red Cross to say this is a good thing, that these children are learning things and not being killed by the millions,” Wick said.
Her research also uncovered a fascinating detail about the singer who originated her role. “The person who played the Cat was one of the only people who performed in the original production to survive,” Wick explained. “Her name was Ela Weissberger. After the war, she would go to performances of ‘Brundibár’ and talk about it.”
Wick was especially moved by Weissberger’s message about the opera, which was performed at Theresienstadt more than 55 times. “She said, ‘This was the one thing that gave us joy.’ That definitely enhanced my appreciation of the piece.”
Coming to America
Founded 15 years ago, Project Opera has a record of staging challenging works. Past productions include Susan Kander’s “The Giver,” based on Lois Lowry’s dystopian novel for young adults. Project Opera also tackled “Memory Boy” by Augsburg University Prof. Reinaldo Moya, with its story about a suburban Minneapolis family fighting to survive after a series of earthquakes.
“A hallmark of our program is that we don’t do kiddie music,” said Project Opera music director Matthew Abernathy. “We do sophisticated music that we teach the kids to perform well.
“It’s children’s music in the sense that it was written for children,” Abernathy continued. “But not in the sense that it is somehow diminutive. It’s very crafted and not tonally simple, with some complicated passages that take work to learn.”
When it comes to “Brundibár,” Abernathy is particularly excited about the contributions of director David Radamés Toro, an assistant director on Minnesota Opera productions including Paul Moravec’s “The Shining” (2016) and William Bolcom’s “Dinner at Eight” (2017). Toro opted to relocate Project Opera’s “Brundibár” from its original small-town Czech setting to a present-day detention camp for immigrants on the U.S.-Mexico border.
The work’s contemporary parallels aren’t lost on Project Opera’s cast of 10- to 14-year-olds.
“You can look at lines in the opera and directly put them with our world today,” said Sydney Sistad, 14, who plays Brundibár the organ-grinder.
Ahan Devgun, 13, plays a boy named Pepícek. At a recent rehearsal, he plucked a line from the opera’s libretto — “all alone the prowling cat, catch a sparrow, mouse or rat” — and wondered aloud whether “that’s like ICE agents catching people immigrating here illegally.”
Abernathy thinks Toro’s updating, in particular, boosts the work’s relevance for young people today. “Having this tyrant character Brundibár overcome by the children and their classmates is an important message regardless of political climate,” Abernathy said. “It shows that young people have agency.”
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.