'Brundibar' comes to the Orlando stage in November


October 20, 2017

For over a decade and a half, “Brundibar” was the performance that almost happened.

A large file folder, still held by the Holocaust Memorial Resource & Education Center, documents the history. In 2001, Tess Wise, the Holocaust Center’s founder and then-executive director, had a big vision: she was planning to bring an Israeli children’s choir to Orlando to perform this historic opera. The contents of the folder reveal how it almost happened, and how it didn’t. Emails and receipts show that the space was booked at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Center. Press releases were sent to the Orlando Sentinel. Everything seemed in order, but things fell through, mostly because of finances; “Brundibar” couldn’t happen, not that year.

It would be 16 years before “Brundibar” would come to the Orlando stage, but this lost dream has been realized; in partnership with Opera Orlando and Florida Symphony Youth Orchestra, two of Orlando’s cultural beacons, the Holocaust Memorial Resource & Education Center is thrilled to host a performance of this powerful children’s opera. The commemoration and performances will take place on Sunday, Nov. 5, at 2 p.m. at the Rosen Jewish Community Center at 11184 S. Apopka Vineland Rd, Orlando, FL 32836. A special talk from American composer Lori Laitman will be presented on Thursday, Nov. 2, at 6 p.m. at the Holocaust Center. Visitors to the Thursday evening program will hear about not only the process of creating the composition, but about its significance.

Executive Director of the Holocaust Center, Pam Kancher, is extraordinarily grateful for this partnership. “We are thrilled to fulfill the dream of our founder and Holocaust Survivor, Tess Wise, by bringing ‘Brundibar’ to our community. We are so grateful for the significant partnership with Opera Orlando and the Florida Symphony Youth Orchestras, without whom we would not be able to present this incredible project.”

“Brundibar” was written by Czech composer Hans Krasa for a 1939 competition whose winner would never be declared. When Germany invaded the present-day Czech Republic, Krasa was imprisoned in Terezin. It was here that he decided to stage the unperformed opera, casting the camp’s children in the roles. The opera tells the story of two children who must raise money to buy milk for their sick mother, but are repeatedly thwarted by Brundibar, the town bully. But through teamwork and by standing up to injustice, they defeat Brundibar.

Terezin was considered the “model” camp; when the Red Cross, concerned that the concentration camps were not the “paradise” of Hitler’s propaganda, visited the camp in June of 1944 they were treated to a performance of the opera. Brundibar, for those imprisoned in Terezin, became a metaphor for Hitler. Maybe that was not what Krasa had intended originally, but there, performed inside the concentration camp, when the children came together with their fists raised in the air as they marched against Brundibar in unison, the powerful metaphor was unmistakable. Even still, this proved to be too subtle for the audience of foreign dignitaries and Nazi officers who later celebrated its performance. 

The opera was performed 55 times by the children in the camp. For them, the music and story were a source of inspiration and hope; it was a much-needed escape from the daily fears and suffering that came with surviving in the camp. It was not the only way that children found escape. Vedem, Czech for “in the lead,” was the project of about a hundred boys who lived in a single house of the camp. Featuring poetry, literary reviews, jokes, and essays, it was circulated in secret. The boys knew that its discovery would result in their death. It was never found, and miraculously, over 700 pages survived the war. In 2010, American composer Lori Laitman drew from the poetry written in the magazine, alongside contemporary libretto written by David Mason, to create an oratorio by the same name. Sung by a youth choir, Vedem is a story of resilience, resistance, and survival.

In memory of the children of Terezin, it is now a tradition for “Brundibar” to be performed by an all-youth cast. Through these performances, young artists will be able to explore the themes of inclusion, perseverance, and teamwork.  Robin Jensen, Music and Education Director of Opera Orlando who will be preparing the Opera Orlando Youth Company for the performance, believes that this is an incredible way for the company’s aspiring young artists to learn about these powerful lessons from history and how they’re still relevant.

“The performances of “Brundibar” and Vedem will cause our cast to imagine themselves in the same situation as the children imprisoned in the concentration camp,” explained Jensen. “They will be challenged by this but I’m confident that their hearts will grow while they gain a personal understanding of this once terrible reality. We’re grateful to both the Holocaust Center and the Youth Orchestra for this collaboration and giving our company this opportunity.”

The young orchestra players will also be given a chance to engage with the power of the music. “The FSYO Symphonic members and I are happy to be part of this project of remembrance and we’re honored to use our talents to keep the voices of the original performers alive,” said Hanrich Claassen, FSYO Symphonic Orchestra Conductor and Music Director.

For information about sponsorships and tickets, visit holocaustedu.org.


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