17 Aug 2014

Music Outside the Concentration Camp: Brundibar

From Standing Room Only, 1:34 pm on 17 August 2014

Cast watches orchestra from Kelburn Normal School image supplied
Cast watches orchestra from Kelburn Normal School. Image supplied.

In an historic video clip, Jewish children— some with painted faces, stand together in a tightly-packed group performing a song from  — an opera by Jewish-Czech Composer Hans Krása. The opera, written specifically for children’s voices was performed 55 times in Terezín –a concentration camp which processed more than 32,00 prisoners, was largely used as a transit camp before prisoners were sent (as was Krása)  to either one of the two execution camps – Auschwitz or Treblinka.

Set up and run by the SS as a ‘model’ Jewish settlement primarily for propaganda purposes, Terezín became known for its flourishing musical community. Life in the camp on the outset was advertised to visitors—including the Red Cross who came to inspect it, as a place where life carried on as usual. But behind the façade with its freshly painted buildings and newly potted plants, was a tally of least 150,000 men, women and children who lost their lives through malnutrition and disease due to overcrowding and poor conditions. And not to mention the mass clear-outs that took place prior to important visits where prisoners numbering in their thousands were promptly sent to execution to reinforce the camp’s clean, green and now spacious living conditions.  

Bringing Brundibár to Life

Icecream seller baker and milkman Brundibar images supplied
Icecream seller baker and milkman. Image supplied.

The production is being staged as part of a Conference: Recovering Forbidden Voices 2014 which is a collaboration between the New Zealand School of Music and Victoria University. In the production children from Kelburn Normal School make up the choral component.

Given that the opera is being performed in 2014, according to Conductor Robert Legg, the story of the concentration camp comes to mind immediately when listening to the music, but so too do other elements, “Central Europe in the middle twentieth century is invoked quite strongly in the sound world, another evocation is to do with the folk stories, fairy tales folk myths.”

Director Frances Moore is driven to make these kinds of works, which she says reach out into the community offering an alternative form of  opera. “It is important to nurture audiences with smaller operas in non-traditional spaces – that it’s not an exclusive art form for particular people.” When it comes to working on Brundibár she maintains, “we don’t want to perform it as a history piece—what we’ve discovered is this beautiful, really small masterpiece that works really well with children that is dramatically really fun, it doesn’t only need to be performed as a narrative about World War II.”

Conductor Robert legg with chamber orchestra from Kelburn Normal School image supplied
Conductor Robert Legg with chamber orchestra from Kelburn Normal School. Image supplied.

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