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Madison Opera: Krasa's "Brundibar" (Isthmus)

Hans Krása: Brundibár

Little Joe: David Clausen
Annette: Mary Mackenzie
Brundibár: Joe Harper
Ice Cream Man: Jake Tauber
Baker: Sara DeFelice
Milkman: Brendan Younger
Policeman: Dan Sinclair
Sparrow: Megan Hamm
Cat: Gail Bennett
Dog: Andrew Kiefaber
Beverly Taylor, conductor


The Madison Opera's performance of Hans Krása's Holocaust children's opera Brundibár proved extremely affecting, possibly more so for older adults than for the many children in the audience, though the Opera had provided study guides for local schools to help the kids understand what the story was really about.

Written in 1939 for the children of the Jewish orphanage in Prague, Brundibár was first performed in the "model" Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt (Terezín, Czechoslovakia) in 1943. The Madison performances were introduced by Ela Stein Weissberger of New York, who as a young girl took part in the original Terezín performances. Weissberger was one of only 89 Terezín children who survived the Holocaust. As many as 15,000 children, as well as the composer Krása and thousands of other adults, were transported from the camp to Auschwitz and gassed.

The entire cast of ten characters and a chorus were Madison children. Beverly Taylor conducted the small instrumental ensemble. The simple story is that brother and sister Little Joe (David Clausen) and Annette (Mary Mackenzie) need to buy milk for their ailing mother but have no money. The town-market merchants, the policeman and the successful organ grinder Brundibár (Joe Harper) spurn and mock them, but in the end their creative pluck helps them succeed. They are aided by a sparrow (Megan Hamm), a dog (Andrew Keifaber) and a cat (Gail Bennett) and at the end all (here joined by Weissberger, the original Cat) sing a little victory song.

The production was from Opera Pacific. An ingenious simple set by Peter Harrison represents the town square. Joel Berlin's costumes are wartime central Europe. Jay Lesenger, who conceived and directed the California production, also directed the Madison one.

At the very end, the three panels on each side of the set revolve, revealing the silhouettes of the doomed camp inmates, marchinhg toward the rear. The back wall of the set opens to reveal the infamously ironic sign "Arbeit macht frei (work sets you free)" and the train tracks leading away to Auschwitz. The end of the line, in every sense.

As Weissberger so simply but eloquently remarked at the beginning, Brundibár is an act of remembering. As the generation that lived through such horrors dwindles, those who come after will have only the protection of history and memory to protect them from the worst that human beings can do.

Isthmus, January, 2000
Copyright 2000 Jess Anderson

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