Press Release: CUNY Graduate Center to Present "Brundibar" at Henry Street Settlement

One of the most extraordinary and touching operatic events ever staged will be re-created February 14-16 at the Henry Street Settlement, where the City University of New York Graduate Center will present the children's opera Brundibar. Brundibar was first performed in 1944 by the children of the Nazi concentration camp in Terezin, Czechoslovakia. Representing the New York City professional premiere, the production will be fully staged with orchestra and all roles will be sung by members of the award-winning Young People's Chorus of New York City (Francisco J. Nuñez, director). In addition, there will be an opening narration by actor Eli Wallach.

Performances will be held Friday, February 14, 8 pm; Saturday, February 15, 8 pm; and Sunday, February 16 at 1:30 pm at the Harry de Jur Playhouse of the Henry Street Settlement, 466 Grand Street (between Pitt and East Broadway). All performance are free, but tickets and registration are required, and contributions will be accepted at the door. Please call 1-212-817-8215 or email conted@gc.cuny.edu.

The program is being presented by the City University of New York Graduate Center's Office of Continuing Education and Public Programs' Great Music for Great City series in cooperation with the Education Department of the Anti-Defamation League, the Music Performance Trust Fund, and American Federation of Musicians Local 802. Costumes are being donated by French Toast.

Brundibar:

An Exceptional Children's Opera

Opening night tension was palpable among young singers as orchestra members warmed up, creating the familiar cacophony. Backstage, agitated crews scurried to make their final scenic checks and lighting adjustments. Zelenka, the director was cracking jokes with the conductor who feigned smoking as he wished the cast good luck. In front of the curtain, anticipation ran high in the audience fortunate enough to secure seats for the premier of an opera, Brundibar. The evening would have been banal, nothing untold, except for the time and place: September 23rd, 1944 in the Magdeburg Barracks of Terezin‹Hitler's model concentration camp‹in occupied Czechoslovakia.

History

When the Nazis came to power in the 1930s, Jews from Germany and surrounding countries, sensing the impending danger, began sending their children to Prague as a means of ensuring their protection. Prague was a relatively distant city full of culture and education for their precious children. The orphanages in Prague quickly exceeded capacity, as hundreds of children would arrive each month. The successful Czech composer Hans Krasa wrote Brundibar for children to perform as a means of entertaining and occupying the thousands of children in Prague's orphanage system. Performances were planned, but things were halted when the Nazis took Prague and began to send the city's Jews to concentration camps in the surrounding areas. Krasa, the teachers from the orphanages, along with thousands of Eastern Europe's children and artistic cognoscenti were sent to the Terezin concentration camp (the same camp where Pavel Friedman wrote I Never Saw Another Butterfly). As a means of crowd control within the camp, the Nazis allowed the Jews to engage in varied social activities: concerts, plays, lectures, cabarets.

A few members of the Terezin music community began teaching the children music as a means to lift their spirits and build a sense of community. This coincided with the discovery of a copy of the score of Brundibar, which had been smuggled into the camp. This wonderful tale of good triumphing over evil was deemed perfect for children and adult audiences alike. A production was mounted, and was an enormous successŠ so much so that it was repeated fifty-four more times over the next three years to standing-room-only audiences! In retrospect, one might wonder why the Nazis allowed this piece to be performed at all. The evil organ grinder, Brundibar, who bore a remarkable resemblance to Hitler, was defeated by the masses of children working together. So why was the opera permitted? As it is written in Czech, the Nazis did not spend the time to translate the text; and they assumed the last thing an opera sung entirely by children would be was subversive. That's exactly what it was, though. It lifted the hopes of all that watched it and sang in it. It was the picture of hope: the all-child cast working together on stage singing about the value of teamwork and love, and their ability to vanquish even the mightiest evil. Due to its popularity, a segment of the opera was used in the insidiously staged Nazi propaganda film The Führer Gives a City to the Jews. Ironically, the Nazis selected the final triumphant chorus to show in the film, which was made in order to draw attention away from the growing rumors of Nazi monstrosities.

What makes Brundibar so great? A review of a Terezin performance best summarizes that point:

Brundibar shows how a short opera of today should look and sound, how it can unite the highest in artistic taste with originality of concept, and modern character with viable tunes. We have here a theme which has appeal for children and grown-ups alike, a moral plot motifŠpopular singingŠand a sensitive balance of dynamics.

In short, it is the best opera ever written for children to perform. This thought is supported by dozens of Brundibar productions throughout the United States each year. The opera's message is as fresh today as it was in Terezin; it continues to educate and elevate all those involved.

The New York Production

Stage director Eric Einhorn's goal with this production is two fold: first, to mount a professional production of Brundibar worthy of Krasa and all those children who lost their lives in the Holocaust; second, to bring children together in today's world to achieve the opera's original intent of community building and hope. In our post-September 11th society, children are in greater need of a sense of kinship and accomplishment, as well as positive cultural experiences. This production will bring all those things to the cast. An emphasis will be placed on ensemble-driven acting and singing, as well as on self-expression and sharing. This production is exciting for another reason as well. It will be the first professional production of Brundibar using children of New York City. While touring and amateur productions have exposed small audiences to the opera, never has a professional production been mounted aimed at the entire, diverse New York metropolitan community. Outreach tours are also currently in negotiation with other venues in New York City, Long Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

All roles will be sung by members of the award-winning Young People's Chorus of New York City. The Young People's Chorus of New York City was formed by its founder Francisco Nuñez to provide an atmosphere where young people of diverse ethnic, economic, and religious backgrounds could further their personal and artistic growth through the study and performance of music. The mission of community-building and hope of this choir of young people is much the same as the mission of this production; the greatest significance of this production lies in the opera's powerful message of understanding, camaraderie, hope, and peace.

Along with Brundibar, two additional segments will be presented during the performance. The first will be an opening narration giving the audience an introduction to the history of the piece (while retaining the evening's dramatic flow). Famed actor Eli Wallach has signed on for this portion. The second additional segment will be the inclusion of Hans Krasa's miniature masterpiece, Overture for Small Orcehstra, which will act as a curtain-raiser to the opera. The Overture, written during Krasa's imprisonment in Terezin, is speculated to have been written for the camp production of Brundibar. Our inclusion pays homage to this intent, and allows the public the opportunity to hear this neglected gem. The production is being professionally designed and accompanied by a professional orchestra.

This New York Brundibar, slated for February 14 -15 (8:00 pm) & 16 (1:30 pm), 2003, is produced under the auspices of the Office of Continuing Education and Public Programs at The Graduate Center, CUNY and will be performed at the Harry de Jur Playhouse at the Abrons Arts Center of the Henry Street Settlement: 466 Grand Street (at Pitt Street), New York, NY. Admission will be free.

The production is part of the Great Music for a Great City series, a set of free concerts, produced by the Office of Continuing Education and Public Programs at The Graduate Center, CUNY. The Graduate Center has a long history of producing both music- and Holocaust-related programs, having presented many sold-out concerts (including two Holocaust music concerts this year), as well as the Rosenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies' annual lecture series.

The Young People's Chorus of New York City is a performance-based choral program that has become a widely acclaimed citywide ensemble for children and teens and young adults. The Chorus's five choral divisions include two children's choruses, a concert treble chorus, a young men's chorus, and a mixed semi-professional SATB chorus. Internationally recognized, the Young Peoples Chorus's Concert Chorus won First Place in the Children's Choir category of the 2002 International Kathaumixw Choral Festival and Competition in Powell River, British Columbia. The Chamber Chorus traveled in 2002 to Bulgaria, where they were Artists in Residence at the Festival of Light, performing in the world-renowned Salon des Arts Festival in Sofia's National Palace of Culture. The YPC was awarded the gold medal at the 1999 Des Moines International Choir Competition and silver medal at the 1997 Prague International Choral Competition.

The production is garnering quite a bit of support since it's announcement. Professors Elie Wiesel and Randolph Braham are in support of the production, as is Leopold Lowy, a Terezin survivor and original Brundibar cast member, who will speak to the cast about his Holocaust experiences. Co-sponsors include: The Education Department of the Anti-Defamation League, the Music Performance Trust Fund, American Federation of Musicians Local 802, and the school uniform manufacturer French Toast.

Production/Administrative staff: Eric Einhorn, artistic & stage director; Neal Goren, music director/conductor; Diana Vassall, production/stage manager; Thaddeus Strassberger, set designer; Shawn Kaufman, lighting designer; Mattie Ullrich, costume designer; Caroline Stoessinger & David Levine, producers; Francisco J. Nuñez, director, Young People's Chorus of New York City.

Submitted on: DEC 3, 2002

Category: Center for Jewish Studies, Center for Jewish Studies - Institute for Sephardic Studies, Press Room