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Taking up the cry

Young singers connect with the hopeful message of 'Brundibar,' an opera with a haunting past.

December 04, 2003|Irene Lacher | Special to The Times

When Chanice Duson sings Friday night in L.A. Opera Camp's production of "Brundibar," a Czech opera first performed by children in a Nazi concentration camp, she will be invoking the plight of "people like us."

But none of Chanice's relatives was among the nearly 15,000 Jewish children interned at Terezin in Czechoslovakia who later died at Auschwitz. None perished in the Holocaust at all. The 10-year-old fifth-grader from Burbank Elementary School is African American.

"You don't let people put you down just because they want to be ruler of the world," she said after a recent rehearsal, explaining the moral of "Brundibar." "It was hurtful to people like us because they were being treated bad because of their religion."

"Brundibar," written by composer Hans Krasa and lyricist Adolf Hoffmeister in 1938 in Prague, was staged 55 times by Czech Jewish children at Terezin. Krasa was himself imprisoned there beginning in 1942, and he reorchestrated the opera from a piano score that was smuggled into the camp.

Sixty years after those performances -- including one that was filmed for propaganda to show how well Jews lived under Nazi rule -- the 35-minute opera is sprouting up in different forms. Czech and German productions began touring Europe in the early '90s, but "Brundibar" remained largely unknown in this country until recently. Now children are singing it from New York City to Tulsa, Okla.

Meanwhile, in one of those coincidences coughed up by the zeitgeist, a children's book version has been published by Michael di Capua Books/Hyperion Books for Children. The book is the product of a three-year collaboration between Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of "Angels in America," and celebrated illustrator Maurice Sendak. It's already in its second printing after a healthy debut of 250,000 copies.

The book also marks the end of Sendak's lifelong obsession with the Holocaust.

"I'm 75 and it's a very significant finish to a subject that's haunted me my whole life," the Connecticut-based illustrator said in a telephone interview. "It's the most finished thing I've done artistically. I know I've done it, and that's something rare in an artist's life."

Critics agree with him. The New York Times called it Sendak's best work, applauding its "moments of haunting beauty."

Like the L.A. Opera Camp presentations -- at Santa Monica's Miles Memorial Playhouse on Friday night and at the Museum of Tolerance on Sunday -- the book version of "Brundibar" encompasses children of different faiths.

Sendak and Kushner, who are both Jewish, tweaked the story by making the two main characters, a brother and sister fetching milk for their ill mother, Christian. "The assumption when it was done in the camp was that they all were Jewish because the children [who sang it] were all Jewish," Sendak says. "But all kids get in the way of the bullet. In New York City there are shootouts. These kids got sucked into the Holocaust."

In the book and the new productions, "Brundibar" has taken on dual roles -- as a memorial to the murdered Jewish children of Terezin as well as a broader rallying cry to band together against tyranny.

To bring home both lessons to the 37 student singers, L.A. Opera Camp has joined hands with the Museum of Tolerance at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, where the exhibit "Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the Children of Terezin" runs through Aug. 1. The exhibit of the art teacher's heroic work with the children of Terezin, which included helping with the costumes for "Brundibar," features a Nazi propaganda photo of the camp's cast.

"We had to make sure we trained them in how to be the messengers," says Stacy Brightman, L.A. Opera's director of education and community programs. "We wanted them to have some understanding of the social and historical context as well as the message of this opera: that by working together we can overcome adversity in the face of overwhelming odds."

The siblings at the heart of the opera manage to do exactly that in their quest for money to buy milk for their mother. They see an organ grinder, Brundibar (Czech for "bumblebee"), collecting coins for the music he makes in the town square. When they try to do the same, the greedy Brundibar forces them out. A cat, dog and bird suggest the sister and brother recruit other children to help them stake their claim, and together they triumph over evil.

For three years, L.A. Opera has worked with the Madison Project of Santa Monica College to offer students age 9 to 16 from all over L.A. County the chance to put on an opera at the end of a 10-week program of challenging Saturday sessions. Both L.A. Opera and Madison Project administrators had "Brundibar" on the top of their lists.

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