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Brundibar at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis: Creativity and Efficiency in Tandem
Wendall K. Harrington
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Original Content12/3/2009

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About three years ago, Steve Ryan, director of production for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis called me and asked if I would be interested in working on a new production of Brundibar for their education department. The previous production had a lot of scenery he said, and he was looking to make something that would be more portable.

I was immediately interested. For decades I have been trying to encourage the use of projections for educational theatrical use: Once created, productions can be easily remounted and require virtually no storage. When I looked at a tape of the previous production I understood the real issue with Brundibar for education was twofold. On one hand, opera companies are looking to introduce young people to the beauty of opera with the hope of instilling at least curiosity about the art form, and at the same time they are using Brundibar to teach the history of the Holocaust. Brundibar is a musical fable most famous for being played and sung by the Jewish children interned in the Terezin concentration camp. The subject matter — two children in need of money to buy milk for their sick mother, who triumph over the organ grinder Brundibar — does not neatly illuminate the struggle in the camps, but the idea of any kind of triumph must have been mighty appealing for the inmates, who also were allowed to remove their yellow stars in performance.

The story of the opera Brundibar is the story of the triumph of art over brutality. That the ill-fed, overworked, tortured inmates of Terezin would find it necessary to create drawings and poetry, rehearse and perform an opera in their ‘spare’ time, is a lesson that should be taught to educators everywhere who find arts programming the easiest thing to cut.

As I thought about the audience — children from eight to 15, in addition to adults — I realized they would need a contextualizing element to help them attach the Hans Krasa opera to the history of the persecution of the Jews in Nazi-controlled Europe. The story of a child would be the best approach, but I knew that anything sentimental or mushy would not cut it with modern children. I was fortunate to find the Diary of Petr Ginz. Born in Prague to mixed Jewish and Christian parents in 1928, Petr was an aspiring writer. In addition to the several novels he had written before the age of 13, he began keeping a diary around the time the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia; he was aware of the history unfolding around him and wished to keep a record of the events. The diary is filled with observations about friends, boyish pranks, the weather, holidays and report cards, as well as the increasing privations and deportations inflicted on the Jewish community in which he lived. His style is spare and direct, no sympathy is asked or given — he lets the facts unfold, unaware that anyone would ever read his words. At the age of 14, Petr is transported to Terezin where he founded a magazine called Vedem (We Lead), with the boys in his barracks. That he and his comrades were able to create, publish and distribute that magazine every Friday for two years virtually defines the compelling need for artistic expression in difficult times. Here is a boy worth knowing.

I used much of his writing verbatim (adding violin lessons to the story) and set the little play as a curtain raiser to the opera. We meet Petr and his friend; they chat and kick a soccer ball around. We know boys just like him, but we don’t know any boys whose family and friends are forced to wear yellow stars and are not allowed to walk on the sidewalk because of their religion. He arrives in Terezin and tells us a little about the life in the camp and is asked to play the doctor in the opera. Removing his star, he joins the exuberant children who rush on stage and begin to sing.

Petr’s story unfolds in front of a screen that is projected with black-and-white images of the world he describes: Prague, family, yellow stars, school days, prejudice and deportation. A brightly-colored drop (by Anya Klepikov) flies in over the screen, creating the magical world of the opera where imagination is set free. For a brief while the camp life all but disappears. Two instrumental sections in the score are used to advance Petr’s story, including his deportation to Auschwitz and his sister’s passionate speech about the importance of the art that was left behind: Even though Petr and thousands of others perished, the Nazis could not kill the beauty and power of their work. Just as Brundibar, a children’s opera that might have faded into history, continues to bring joy and insight to audiences all over the world because of its historical attachment to the fate of the Jews.

This was an amazing opportunity, and I will always be grateful to Steve Ryan and Allison Felter of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis for allowing me make something that satisfies on so many levels. Director Doug Scholtz-Carlson’s insight and sensitive work with the young performers gave me the opportunity to really hone the text into a vibrant clarity. It tells a story that wants telling.

From a technical point of view it is a production that can almost travel in an envelope — it worked in the 2,000 seat Touhill Center and it can work in a classroom. It states clearly, to young and old, that art and creative expression is as essential to life as the food we eat. Judging from the audiences and the critics, it also tells in a compelling and moving way, the story of a boy who perished for no reason other than his religion, and asks us to share that loss, to make it real, so we might never forget. Such is the power of the theatre. Is there any work that is more important?

All photos by Eric Woolsey.

Click here for more photos from Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s Brundibar.
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About the Author: Wendall K. Harrington received Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and American Theatre Wing awards for her design of The Who’s Tommy. Broadway credits include Grey Gardens, The Capeman, Ragtime, The Good Body, Putting It Together, Company, John Leguizamo’s Freak, Amy’s View, The Will Rogers Follies, My One and Only, The Heidi Chronicles and They’re Playing Our Song. Opera credits include productions at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, The Minnesota Opera; Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Metropolitan Opera, Washington National Opera and BAM. Ballet: Anna Karenina for Alexei Ratmansky; Ballet Mécanique for Doug Varone and Othello for American Ballet Theatre. Concert: Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and Experience; I Hear America Singing for PBS; and tours for Chris Rock, Simon and Garfunkel, John Fogerty and The Talking Heads. Harrington, a founding member of the Drama Department, is the former design director of Esquire magazine. She created player introductions for the New York Knicks, Liberty and Rangers, as well as two fine daughters. She lectures widely on projection design and is on the faculty of the Yale School of Drama.
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