a haunting and wonderfully inspiring tale of the triumph of
good over evil. The villain Brundibar (Bumblebee) who is consumed
by hate and greed is overcome with the aid of animals by the
combined forces of children united in common cause. Its main
message is that tyranny must and can be defeated when the majority
stands up against it. However, there is a chilling end to the
opera in which Brundibar reminds the audience that “…Bullies
never give up completely. One departs, the next appears…” which
is countered by the children who sing “Tyrants come along, but
just you wait and see! They topple one-two-three!”
Brundibar was written
by Hans Kràsa in response to a competition organised by the
Czech Ministry of Education and Culture to produce a children’s
opera. It is unclear as to whether Krása’s composition won or
even if the competition was ever concluded, since shortly afterwards
the Nazis invaded. Krása, being Jewish was proscribed, his work
banned from being performed before a general audience. Indeed,
before the first performance took place at a Jewish Boys’ Orphanage
in Prague both Krása and the opera’s conductor were arrested.
They were sent to Terezin, a transit camp from which the inmates
were sent on to their deaths in Auschwitz, Birkenau and Treblinka.
Nevertheless it was performed at the orphanage three times before
the director of the orphanage, his son the conductor, the opera’s
director and designer and Gideon Klein a young composer and
the opera’s pianist were also rounded up along with the boys
from the orphanage and sent to Terezin. There Kràsa brilliantly
reworked the piano part utilising the wealth of orchestral talent
who were also inmates of the camp and a new production was staged
55 times. Constant replenishment of the cast of children was
required since most of them were dispatched to the death camps
as soon as each performance was over.
Terezin was designed
to try to prove the Nazis’ compassion and in a film “The Fuhrer
gives the Jews a town” segments of the opera were shown. It
was also used to help dupe the sole representative of the Red
Cross, a young inexperienced man who was completely fooled by
the camp’s commandant. The opera became a huge hit within the
camp and its political allegory was not lost on the audience,
particularly since Brundibar wore a moustache. The evil of Nazism
was defeated and the Jewish people have survived and thrived
but almost all those associated with the opera from the director,
musicians and the cast of children perished in the death camps.
One million children died in the holocaust, including all but
100 or so of the 15,000 children under 15 who passed through
Terezin between 1942 and 1944. Hans Krása himself was murdered
in the gas chambers of Auschwitz in October 1944, another huge
loss to the world of music during that darkest of dark periods.
Thankfully the opera has survived and is becoming better known.
The adaptation presented on this disc by Tony Kushner, its premiere
recording, uses a language that will be even more readily understood
by today’s audiences. It expands Brundibar’s explanation as
to how he became the bully he was and how people must learn
to bend to his will. Though it is good to hear it in the original
Czech this adaptation in English will gain it a whole new fan-base
further bolstering the sense of triumph over evil.
The opera in this
recording is a great success with committed performances from
soloists, choir, orchestra and conductor. The Music of Remembrance
orchestra was founded specifically to perform and record music
composed during those terrible years and music written since
in commemoration of those times.
The Overture for
Small Orchestra, also by Krása, only serves to increase the
sense of loss to music caused by his death. While it would have
been nice to have heard some more of his music, the last six
tracks of the disc are settings by Lori Laitman of six poems
written by children imprisoned in Terezin. These are beautifully
sung and accompanied serving as a fitting conclusion to this
disc of Terezin-related music.
Anyone who wishes
to explore Krása’s legacy or to interest their children in music
and teach them a valuable lesson at the same time can do no
better than start here.
Woolf also reviewed this recording and came to a different
Reviews of other versions of Brundibár: