N.O. Opera’s ‘Brundibár’ shines light on Holocaust
They are the same age as the children they portray, only they are alive and the children who originally performed in the opera “Brundibár” at a Nazi concentration camp during World War II mostly perished at the hands of the Nazis.
Forty-four students from Academy of the Sacred Heart, Mount Carmel Academy, St. Mary’s Dominican, Christian Brothers School, St. Christopher School and St. Pius X as well as from several public and private schools have been cast in three performances May 14-15 of “Brundibár,” a two-act children’s opera at the National World War II Museum.
Composed by Hans Krása and librettist Adolph Hoffmeister in 1938 for a government competition that never happened, the 42-minute opera tells the story of siblings Pepicek and Aninka trying to earn money singing on the streets to buy milk for their sick mother. Their efforts are thwarted by a villain Brundibár (representing Hitler). The children have the help of a few animals to distract Brundibár so they can buy the needed milk. In the end, the children capture Brundibár and do a victory march.
“It had great meaning to the people at the camp because Brundibár was Hitler,” said Robert Lyall, general and artistic director of the New Orleans Opera Association, at a recent youth rehearsal.
“Brundibár” was first performed at an orphanage in 1942 but premiered at the Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt in September 1943 where most of the original cast had been sent during the war. It is believed Krasa rewrote the orchestral score using 14 instruments he could find in the camp. Brundibár was performed 55 times, including once to fool representatives of the International Red Cross and the Vatican into believing that it was a “model” camp where Jewish citizens were detained during World War II. (The local production will use those 14 instruments.)
In actuality, Theresienstadt was spruced up by the Nazis, and many detainees were sent to Auschwitz before the performance, Lyall said.
“The harsh reality was that they used this as a propaganda piece,” Lyall said, and those who saw the play were to believe that “The Fuhrer” gave a city to the Jews when it actuality it was a “ghetto” way station to Auschwitz.
Lyall said he’s given the cast a background on the original performances by children at Theresienstadt, but he didn’t give gory details to place such an emotional burden on the cast.
“It’s hard enough for us as adults to talk about this (the horrors the Jewish people endured at the camps),” Lyall said.
Been rehearsing for weeks
The local youths have been in rehearsals for weeks.
Kadin Gaubert, 14, who portrays the baker, attends J.B. Martin Middle School in Luling and is an altar server at Holy Family Catholic Church.
“It was a serious thing for the Czechoslovakians performing something that would be festive for the Germans, yet they were actually making fun of Hitler,” Gaubert said. Since the Germans didn’t understand the language, they didn’t realize what was being said in the play. “It gave people hope.”
When he thought about the original cast being his age, Kadin said he would have been afraid if he had been there. “But I would have realized that I could give people hope and entertain them at the same time.”
The main characters of the brother and sister are portrayed by Annie Cohen as Aninka and Brandon Marquez as her brother Pepicek. Madeleine Cucullu, 15, a student at New Orleans Center of Creative Arts, is the cat, originally portrayed by the opera’s lone survivor Ela Weissberger who will be present in New Orleans.
“I know how much of an honor it is to have this part,” said Madeleine. “Actually meeting the Holocaust survivor is nerve-racking for me. I can’t even imagine the things she has gone through. When I perform for her, I hope she thinks that I’m the right person for the job.”
Special opera features
To set the context of the performance of “Brundibár,“ Lyall said a 15-minute piece “Friedl” by Eli Villanueva and Leslie Stevens will preface it. “Friedl” is a dramatization of an art class based on the book “Fireflies in the Dark” about the life of Czechoslovakian Jew Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who taught art to kids at the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp in Terezin, and the poem “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.”
“We’re trying to establish that the opera takes place in a concentration camp and what the people went through,” Lyall said.
To make the opera experience even more impactful, the San Diego nonprofit “The Butterfly Project,” whose goal is the painting and permanent display of 1.5 million ceramic butterflies – each representing a child lost in the Holocaust – will be May 14. Children’s Holocaust artwork curated by Toni Kiser, assistant director for collections management at The National World War II Museum, also will be shown, Lyall said.
Ela Weissberger, a Holocaust survivor and lone surviving cast member of “Brundibár” who lived at the Theresienstadt, will be the guest of honor at all performances. She also will take part in distance-learning webinar May 13 at noon hosted by The National World War II Museum and join the cast on stage.
“She has made her life’s work coming to share this experience all over the world,” Lyall said.