Brundibár

Year of Premiere: 
1943
Composer: 
Hans Krása

Brundibár (Terezin, 1943)
Hans Krasa (b. Prague, November 30, 1899; d. Auschwitz, October 18, 1944)
Libretto by Adolf Hoffmeister (1902-1973)
English adaptation by Tony Kushner

Tony Kushner offers the following remarks:

In 1938, the Czech Ministry of Education and culture sponsored a competition for a children's opera. Among those vying for the prize was a 40-year-old Prague composer, Hans Krása, whose entry, libretto by the playwright Adolf Hoffmeister, was Brundibár (the word is Czech for bumblebee). I haven't been able to find out whether Brundibár won the competition or whether the competition was ever concluded. A few months after the opera was completed the German army invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia. Krása, who was Jewish, would have been barred from participation in such a contest, his music unperformable before a general audience according to Nazi race laws. Brundibár was not given its premiere until 1942 at the Vinohrady Jewish Boys' Orphanage, which had become a concert and recital hall for the Jews of the Prague ghetto. Before the first performance, Krása, as well as the opera's conductor, Rafael Schaechter, were arrested and sent in the first transport of Prague Jews to Theresienstadt, or Terezín, the Nazi's "model ghetto" for the Jews of Central Bohemia--in reality a concentration camp and a way station for the death camps of Auschwitz, Birkenau, Treblinka. In spite of the arrests, Brundibár was performed at the Vinohrady Orphanage, conducted by Rudolph Freudenfeld, son of the orphanage's director. The piece was given three performances before the transports rounded up Freudenfeld father and son, director and designer Frantisek Zelenka, pianist Gideon Klein, who had been the accompanist, and the boys of the Vinohrady Orphanage. Rudolph Freudenfeld had hidden a copy of the piano score in his luggage, and so Brundibár arrived in Terezín, where Krása was now the inmate in charge of music for the Freizeitgestaltung (Free Time Activities Administration). Krása brilliantly reorchestrated the piano score, taking advantage of the presence in Terezín of a number of talented instrumentalists. In September 1943, the Vinohrady group, now concentration camp inmates, staged a new, co-ed production, cast with imprisoned children. The opera itself become a hit among the inmate population; Rudolph Freudenfeld conducted, Zelenka directed and designed a new set, the poet Emil Saudek wrote a new anthem for the opera's finale, emphasizing Brundibár's political value as allegory--in photos of the production the boy playing Brundibár is wearing a mustache, which, though more of the handle-bar than toothbrush variety, surely made its point. Brundibár was performed 55 times at Terezín. It was begun by Jews for Jews, but before long the camp officials recognized the propaganda potential of Brundibár, with its singing prisoner children and "happy" (or at least momentarily distracted) prisoner audiences. The opera was performed for the International Red Cross committee of one (an inexperienced young man, utterly charmed and duped by the Nazi commandant) sent to inspect camp conditions. Segments of the performance were filmed and included in the film Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt (The Führer Gives the Jews a City), produced by the Nazis and directed by a camp inmate, the great actor and singer Kurt Gerron. The opera's director and designer, the poet Saudek, Kurt Gerron and nearly all the children who performed Brundibár--including Honza Treichlinger, the boy who became a Terezín celebrity for creating the title role of the wicked organ grinder--were eventually sent to Auschwitz where they were murdered. Hans Krása died in the gas chambers in Auschwitz in October 1944. Brundibár is a beautiful children's story, extolling the virtues of courage and cooperation and collective action against tyranny. In a sense, it's a tale of the outrage and rebellion of even the natural world of dogs, cats and sparrows against preventable evils-injustice and poverty and the suffering of children. It's a tale of the power of music to make miracles happen. It's a story of good defeating evil. But its beauty is haunted, for it comes from one of the darkest points in human history, when evil, at least for a time, was triumphant over good, and millions upon millions died. One could say ultimately the music has triumphed: today Brundibár is performed all over the world, and the Jewish people have survived, endured, flourished. On the other hand, one must always be wary of drawing false reassurances from the horrific lessons of the Holocaust, perhaps especially now, when children all over the world are in such mortal danger--poor children, children in war zones, Jewish and Palestinian children, as well as homeless, uninsured, unprotected children in the United States. In dark times such as these, Brundibár, both the opera and its tragic history, shouldn't offer us too much reassurance; we shouldn't draw comfort from the fact that, even after the worst has happened, people and art survive, because after all, only some people survive, while many are lost, and some art is salvaged, but much creative brilliance, like Hans Krása's, is extinguished before its time, and what the world loses can't be recovered. Instead of false comfort, Brundibár offers inspiration to action, and exhortation. Be brave, and you can make bullies behave! Rely on friends! Make common cause, build communities, organize and resist! And tyrants of all kinds, in every generation, can be and must be made to fall.