The Michigan Opera Theatre Children's Chorus (MOTCC) has a legacy of involving gifted children in work that is relevant not only creatively, but socially and historically. This year, they will perform Hans Krása and Adolf Hoffmeister's ‘Brundibár’ on Sunday, March 16, at 2:30 p.m. at the Detroit Opera House. The opera, originally written in Czech, will be performed in a brilliantly witty new English translation by Pulitzer- and Tony-winning American playwright Tony Kushner. The performance is directed by Michael Yashinsky and will be conducted by Dianna Hochella.
While this family-friendly children’s opera tells a sweet story when enjoyed at face value, the significance of Brundibár is that its production stands as a memorial to child victims and survivors of the Holocaust.
The story is simple enough – telling of a brother and sister who join forces with a sparrow, cat and dog to outwit the evil organ grinder, Brundibár. It’s significant to note that when Tony Kushner's story was published as a book illustrated by Maurice Sendak, the character of Brundibár was outfitted with a Hitler mustache.
Originally composed as part of a government competition, the staging of the children’s opera was interrupted by the rise of the Third Reich. It was eventually rehearsed at an orphanage made necessary by WWII. Before the first performance, the composer and set designer had already been sent to the notorious concentration camp, Theresienstadt. In short order, nearly all of the children of the original chorus and the orphanage staff had also been transported to Theresienstadt. To distract the children and keep up hope, the little troupe staged 55 productions of “Brundibár” in the concentration camp. In 1944 a special production was set up by the Nazi propaganda machine to fool the International Red Cross into thinking that Theresienstadt was a benign relocation center. After that, “Brundibár” was filmed by the Nazi propaganda machine to further disguise the horrors of their regime. All of the participants in the Theresienstadt production were herded into cattle trucks and sent to Auschwitz as soon as filming was finished, where most were gassed, including children.
One of the reasons we know as much as we do is owing to Holocaust survivors such as Ela Stein Weissberger. Ms.Weissberger played the Cat in the original performance at Theresienstadt. Ms. Weissberger will be onsite to speak to donors in the audience about how art and music inspired her hope for survival. The performance will be preceded by “Lilies Among Thorns,” a new play penned by the stage director that dramatizes the extraordinary human will to create things of beauty even in the face of destruction.
"It's a light opera but there is a dark history surrounding it," said MOTCC director Suzanne Mallare Acton. ‘Brundibár’s’ message of people banding together to overcome an evil force certainly was relevant at the time this opera was composed. We've learned from those who survived the Holocaust that the arts can survive during terrible times and help bring hope to those who need it most. Having Ela present to speak to audiences about what this opera and other artistic works meant to the people of Theresienstadt is a great learning opportunity for our kids and the whole community. It's a true testament of the human spirit enduring during truly dire circumstances."
This is a show that younger children can enjoy and an experience that will benefit the entire family.
Tickets to the performance of “Brundibár” are $30 for adults and $15 for children 17 years and younger. Patron tickets are available for $50 and include box seats and a meet and greet opportunity with Ela and the cast, following the show. Ticket information is available by calling (313) 237-SING (7464) or by visiting michiganopera.org.
A student dress rehearsal is open to local schools on Fri., March 14 at 11 a.m. “Brundibár” is sponsored by Lil and Alex Erdeljan – Production Sponsor, and the Worthington Family Foundation – Education Material and Student Ticket Sponsor.