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

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 production of Hans Krása's Holocaust children's opera Brundibár proved extremely affecting. 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. She was one of fewer than 100 Terezín children who survived the Holocaust. As many as 15,000 other children, as well as thousands of adults, including Krása, were transported to Auschwitz and gassed.

Brundibár's charming story is that brother and sister Little Joe and Annette need milk for their ailing mother but have no money. The organ-grinder Brundibár has bullied the townspeople into supporting him. The children decide to raise money by singing, but the town-market merchants, the policeman and Brundibar harshly mock them. In the end, aided by a Sparrow, a Dog and a Cat, Little Joe and Annette succeed. Everybody but the vanguished Brundibár sings a joyful little victory song. Weissberger, who played the original Cat, joined in for this finale.

The cast of ten and a chorus were Madison children who made up in verve what they lacked in vocal skills. Beverly Taylor ably conducted the small instrumental ensemble. The production was from Opera Pacific. An ingenious simple set by Peter Harrison represents the town square, with three rotating panels on either side for entries and exits. Joel Berlin's costumes are wartime central Europe. Jay Lesenger, who conceived and directed the California production, also directed the Madison one.

It all seems sweet and innocent, but after the victory song the side panels rotate all the way and we see silhouettes of the doomed camp inmates, marching away 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 to Auschwitz: the end of the line in every sense and a very sober reminder of the circumstances.

As Weissberger eloquently remarked at the beginning, Brundibár is an act of remembering. The generation that witnessed these horrors is dwindling, and people who come after will have only the protection of history and memory to shield them from the worst that human beings can do.

Isthmus, January, 2000
Copyright 2000 Jess Anderson

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