Czechoslovakian composer Hans Krása originally wrote the opera “Brundibár,” which will open at Sweet Briar College this week, for a competition at an orphanage in 1938 — the same year Hitler invaded the country.
By the time it was actually performed in 1942, Krása had been transported to the concentration camp Theresienstadt, where he was soon joined by the opera’s director, scenic designer and some of the children from the original production.
Krása eventually recreated the opera there from memory and the partial piano score he smuggled in with him — “with the instruments they happened to have there in the camp,” says Bill Kershner, who is directing SBC’s production.
The opera tells the story of a tyrannical organ grinder, the titular Brundibár, who prevents a brother and sister from singing in the marketplace of their village to earn money to help their sick mother. But he is eventually defeated when the siblings team up with a sparrow, a cat, a dog and other children in the town to chase him away.
“Krása tried to put [in] subliminal messages,” Kershner says. “In pictures of the original production, they gave Brundibár a mustache [like Hitler’s]. I guess the Nazis did not consider it to be a threat. … The story really is about how you can band together and triumph over evil. But, at the same time, we know it’s not an easy triumph.”
The opera was performed 55 times at the concentration camp between 1943 and 1944. At one point, the Nazis used it as propaganda to prove to a Red Cross delegation that prisoners were treated humanely there.
But, in fact, Theresienstadt was a stopover where more than 150,000 people were held for months or years before being sent to extermination camps. Not long after that Red Cross visit, Krása and many of the residents were sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
To honor their memory, Kershner is staging the opera — which Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner translated into English in 1992 — as if it’s being performed in 1943 in the camp. The set is designed to look like the inside of Theresienstadt, and members of the orchestra will wear the same prison garb as the cast.
“We’ve given everybody in the cast the name of a concentration camp victim,” Kershner says. “Students have all been given a particular name and, even in some cases, a photograph of someone who was killed.”
He did much of that research himself.
“It really struck me,” he says. “I’d be looking for names of victims of certain ages. I’d do a search in the Holocaust Victims Database [for] 8-year-olds, and [would] get pages and pages and pages of them. The immensity of it, the horror, is astounding.”