Brundibár

Introduction and brief history

Brundibár is a small opera written for children, no more than forty minutes long.  Composed by Hans Krása with lyrics by Adolf Hoffmeister in 1938 as an entry for a children’s opera competition, it received its premiere in German-occupied Prague, performed by children at the Jewish Orphanage in Belgicka St. Brundibár had one additional performance in the Hagibor building, before the mass transports of Bohemian and Moravian Jews began to Terezín in 1942. In July 1943, the score of Brundibár  was smuggled into camp, where it was re-orchestrated by Krása for the various instrumentalists who were available to play at that time, and the premiere of the Terezín version took place on 23 September 1943 in the hall of the Magdeburg barracks. Realising the propagandistic potential of this enormously popular artistic endeavour, the Nazis arranged a special new staging of Brundibár for the propaganda film Theresienstadt -eine Dokumentarfilm aus den jüdische Siedlungsgebiet (directed by Kurt Gerron), and the same production was performed for the inspection of Terezín by the International Red Cross in September 1944. This would be the last of the fifty-five performances in the Terezín ghetto; two weeks later, transportation of artists began to Auschwitz and other destinations East, silencing this, the most popular theatrical production in Terezín.

Synopsis

Aninka and Pepíček, two little children, have a sick mother.  The doctor has prescribed milk for her health, and they go seeking milk in the town marketplace, but they have no money to purchase it.  Three traders hawk their wares: an ice-cream man, a baker and a milkman.  The children engage the milkman in a song, but he tells them that they need money for milk.  Suddenly the children spot the organ-grinder, Brundibár, playing on the street corner.  Seeing his success, they decide to busk as well (and proceed to sing a song about geese), much to the annoyance of the townsfolk and Brundibár, who chase them away.  Three animals – a sparrow, cat and dog – come to their help, and together they recruit the other children of the neighbourhood in their plan.  Night falls, the dawn comes, the children and animals begin morning exercises and the townsfolk get ready for the day.  The plan goes ahead: the animals and children drown out Brundibár; they then join in a beautiful lullaby.  The townsfolk are very moved and give Aninka and Pepíček money.  Suddenly, Brundibár sneaks in and steals their takings.  All the children and the animals give chase, and recover the money.  The opera concludes with a victory march sung about defeating the evil organ-grinder.

Performance details, 1942-1944

The premiere performance of Brundibár was given as a celebratory gift to the director of the Jewish orphanage, Moritz Freudenfeld, and directed by Rafael Schächter.  After Schächter’s sudden deportation to Terezín, Rudi Freudenfeld assumed control of the rehearsals.  František Zelenka, an architect and stage designer formerly of the National Theatre and Liberated Theatre, took over the direction of the opera, and designed a simple set of three large fences made up of several boards, with three posters stuck on it.  The posters had a sparrow, cat and dog wittily presented, and the animal characters would stick their heads through the poster when they first appeared in the action.  Since it was being staged in the dining room of the orphanage without space or resources for orchestra, three players had to suffice: piano, violin and drummer.

Rudi Freudenfeld took the decision to smuggle the piano score of Brundibár into Terezín in his allotted 50kg of luggage, and arrived on 7 July 1943.  Ela Steinova Weissberger described her selection as a principal character (the Cat), explaining that her room (Room 28 of the Czech Girls Home) was already well-known for its musical activities.  The audition panel went straight to Tella Polak (the madricha (leader) of the room) to ask if she had any skilful singers, and she recommended Ela.  The preliminary auditions were held in the space that was to become the rehearsal area, the attic of L417; Rafael Schächter was the prime auditioner, and Weissberger recalls:

“So here we came to the attic for auditions, but even now the kids are asking me ‘What did you sing for your audition?’, and I say ‘La la la’ – he (Rafi Schächter) was asking which level of voice type and what (character) was interesting [to me].”

Two of the principles had already played singing roles in a performance of the Bartered Bride and other operatic productions and Rafi Schächter selected them immediately in the main roles: Pintǎ Mühlstein (Pepíček) and Greta Hofmeister (Aninka). Ela Steinova played the cat, Stefan (later Rafi) Herz-Sommer played the sparrow, and Zdenĕk Ornest played the dog. The greatest recruit was Honza Treichlinger, who played Brundibár in every performance. According to Rudi Freudenfeld:

“[Brundibár] is a character full of mental conflict for the children.  They always had sympathy for beggars and poor people, but this one was wicked, ugly.  Honza, quite instinctively, made the character of Brundibár so human, that, although he played a wicked character, he became the darling of the audience, and not only of the children in the audience.  He learned to ‘twitch the whiskers’ which we stuck under his nose.  He twitched them so well, and at just the right time, that tension relaxed in the auditorium and often we could hear the children releasing their bated breath.”

As a result of malnutrition, sickness would inevitably result in absences in other leading roles.  According to Joža Karas, all three main principals (Aninka, Pepíček and Brundibár) played in all performances.  This is a contentious assertion for the two surviving principal performers.  Weissberger asserts that she too performed in all performances, whilst Greta Hofmeister Klingsberg disagrees. Weissberger notes that Maria Mühlstein (Pinťa’s sister) and her friend Anna Flachova both stood in for Hofmeister when she was ill; and Maria stood in for Rafi Herz-Sommer as the bird.  In further interviews with other survivors, Hanka Polak Drori mentions playing the role of the dog, along with Susan Klein, replacing Zdenĕk Ornest at various times.

Again, František Zelenka was given charge as stage director, this time with assistance of an exceptional choreographer from Vienna, Kamila Rosenbaum. Weissberger comments about organised movement:

“People are asking ‘why are you looking for some movement?’ and I said, well, this [Brundibár] was the first time I learned how to dance, waltz and all that, and when we learned English waltz, my mother was an excellent ballroom dancer, and when I came one day, I said ‘Mom, I want to dance with you an English waltz’. My mother looked at me and said ‘Where did you learn English waltz?’ I said ‘Mrs Rosenbaum, she taught us how to dance and within Brundibár, and I was humming and dancing with my mother.”

This testimony gives us a taste of the ‘normalising’ skills that children in the production acquired throughout their journey with Brundibár. Something as simple as dancing acquired an enhanced meaning not only in the camp, but became a positive post-war memory.

Zelenka began scouting for materials for the set, which were not easy to acquire in the camp.  With the help of the puppeteer, Brumlik, he began construction of the large paling fence in the loft of Q319, a barracks that housed blind internees.  Brumlik was the Hausältester (barrack supervisor) of that particular barracks, and enlisted a young carpenter, Jerry Rind to transport the materials for the fence, taking wood from the Reitschule and bringing it to Brumlik. As a reward, Jerry was allowed to see rehearsals and at least four performances of the production.

In Terezín, Hans Krása wrote a new orchestral score for the work, arranging it for the available instruments: flute/piccolo, clarinet, trumpet, guitar, side drum and bass drum, piano, 4 violins, cello, double bass and accordion. To his great surprise, Schächter, who was too busy with other musical projects at the time, gave Rudi Freudenfeld the task of conducting this production.  According to his account:

“I went to him (Schächter) for instructions daily.  He had his ‘studio’ in cellar L410.  There he sat at a larger harmonium, sang and played and I had to ‘conduct’ him.  He had his own way of telling me what to do, and where to put my left ‘fin’ and such-like, but bit by bit he went through the whole score with me.  We marked the entrances, what gestures to use, and he taught me everything a conductor must know.  At the first orchestral rehearsal he went through the whole orchestral part himself first.  One could see how he was enjoying himself.  How long since he had conducted an orchestra!  Then he handed me the baton, when to stand beside me and I conducted.  When the children joined in, everything was all right.  And thus I also became a Terezín conductor.”

Musical Characteristics of Brundibár

In all the literature, Brundibár  stands alone as the only work of its time written completely for children to perform (with an all-adult orchestra).  Other important works that may have influenced both Hoffmeister and Krása include Der Jasager by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, Wir Bauen eine Stadt by Paul Hindemith, L’Enfant et les sortileges by Maurice Ravel, Hänsel und Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck, Peter and the Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev and Příhody lišky Bystroušky (The Cunning little Vixen) by Leoš Janáček. Hoffmeister and Krása probably took direct inspiration from the pedagogical success of Der Jasager (performed over 200 times in schools in Weimar Germany).  This is born out by a quote from Hoffmeister after the war:

“We have actually an opera as a Brechtian didactic drama’, calmly described Adolf Hoffmeister after the war, who had set off in time to England... ‘through the solidarity of all children, they defeated the organ-grinder Brundibár themselves, because they did not leave themselves open to subversion”

Dr Kurt Singer, a noted Berlin musicologist, wrote the only recorded review of the Terezín production of Brundibár:

Brundibár shows how a short opera of today should look and sound, how it can unite the highest in artistic taste with originality of concept, and modern character with viable tunes.  We have here a theme which has appeal for children and grown-ups alike, a moral plot motif recalling the old fairy tales, popular singing kept simple in choral sections but occasionally becoming quite complex in duets and trios, and a sensitive balance of dynamics maintained between a dozen instruments and three dozen singers.  We have also a Czech national coloration, music-making without recourse to modern experimentation (at which Krása is a master), a clever balance of scenic effects between the orchestra pit and the stage, an orchestra used with taste and economy and a singing line which is never obscured or smothered by the instruments … In this little opera, born of a serious mind and yet so pleasant to the ear, idea and form, thought and preparation, concept and execution are joined in a fruitful marriage of mutual collaboration: Whether it be cast in a large or small form, whether it be song or symphony, chorus or opera, there can be no higher praise for a work of art.”

Brundibár was popular in the ghetto for three major reasons: inmates could see children enjoying a theatrical experience; the allegorical nature of the story of victory over a tyrant could be extrapolated to include the current political oppression suffered by the inmates; and the music was approachable, memorable and enjoyable.  Each melody in the work returns motif-style, to represent characters (Brundibár, the animals) and situations (the quest for milk, the victory march). The orchestration is delicate and challenging enough to provide entertainment for sophisticated and inexperienced ears alike.  Harmonically, the music employs very little in the way of overt dissonance, but incorporates jazz and folk elements in subtle and charming ways.  Czech coloration appears in the waltz melodies, the inclusion of the organ-grinder solo and the first melody that the children employ to try and earn money.

Performance History post-Terezín

A comprehensive performance history of Brundibár cannot be traced from 1944 to 1975. Through the efforts of Joža Karas, a Polish-born Czech violinist living in the United States, Brundibár was introduced to the English-speaking world, premiering in the United States in 1975 with the English premiere in 1977 in Canada, and the German premiere took place in 1985 by the St Ursula Gymnasium in Freiburg am Breisgau. Karas and his wife Milada provided the first English translation, published by Tempo Praha in 1993 (revised 1998). In 1995 the organization Jeunesses Musicales Deutschland established “The Brundibár Project”, an intergenerational undertaking involving invited eyewitnesses who explained their past to the actors, a compact disc of Krása’s music, a video with interviews from surviving performers and clips of Brundibár performances.  Teachers and students received research materials about Nazi Germany, Terezín and the ghetto’s cultural programs.  “The Brundibár Project” generated hundreds of performances of the opera in Germany and Eastern Europe from 1999 onwards, and an explosion of performances has similarly taken place in the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the past decade.  A more recent development in the Brundibár story has been an alternative English adaptation by Tony Kushner for the Chicago Opera production of 2003. In 2014, to mark the 70th anniversary of Brundibár's final potent performance inside the Terezin Ghetto, the opera was performed in Sydney for the very first time in a fully staged production that brought Sydney school children and wider audiences together with local Terezin survivors and their stories.

By Joseph Toltz

Sources

Score and Notes:

Krása, Hans and Hoffmeister, Adolf, Brundibár: Dĕtská`opera o dvou jednáních (Brundibár: a Children’s Opera in two acts); English version by Joža Karas, Piano and vocal score, Edited by Blanka Červinková; Published by Tempo Praha (Prague, 1993; 2nd edition revised and adapted, 1998)

Krása, Hans and Hoffmeister, Adolf, Brundibár: Dĕtská`opera Terezín 1943 (Brundibár: a Children’s Opera Terezín 1943); Orchestral score with Czech children’s parts; Published by Tempo Praha (Prague, 1993)

Books and Articles:

Brenner-Wonnschick, Hannelore, Die Mädchen von Zimmer 28; (Munich, 2004)

Ehrmann, František, Heitlinger, Otta & Iltis, Rudolph (eds) Terezín (Published by the Council of Jewish Communities in the Czech Lands, Prague, 1965

-           Frýd, Norbert, “Culture in the Anteroom to Hell”

-           Franĕk (Freudenfeld), Rudi, “Brundibár”

Karas, Joža, Music in Terezín 1941-1945 (New York, 1985)

Nettl, Paul, The Jews of Czechoslovakia: Historical studies and surveys (Philadelphia, 1968)

Rovit, Reberra, “The Brundibár project: Memorializing Theresienstadt children's opera” Performing Arts Journal; Vol. 22; Issue 2; May 2000, p111-122

Spitz, Ellen Handler Museums of the mind : Magritte's labyrinth and other essays in the arts; Yale University Press, (New Haven, 1994)

Ullmann, Viktor, 26 Kritiken uber musikalische Veranstaltungen in Theresienstadt (Hamburg,1993)

-           Schultz, Ingo, “Theresienstädter Musiker in Ullmann’s Kritiken Biographischer Anhang”

Private Interviews:

Hanka Drori (2008), Greta Klingsberg (2008), Jaroslav (Jerry) Rind (2003), Ela Weissberger (2004)