Brundibár Performance Teaches Importance of Solidarity to Local Youth

The young performers of Brundibár brought a story of strength in togetherness to their audiences, which consisted of more than 1,000 school children from around Washington County. The opera, originally written and performed in a Nazi concentration camp, was selected for PBSO’s Music for Children program because of its timely message. (Photo by Lura Jackson)

By Lura Jackson

More than 1,000 youth from around Eastern Washington County attended a performance of Brundibár over the last month as part of the Passamaquoddy Bay Symphony Orchestra’s [PBSO] Music for Children program. Each person seeing the show had the opportunity to experience a first-rate production that imparted a timely message of solidarity during times of adversity.

Brundibár is partly about its namesake – being an organ grinder that bullies the local populace – and partly about how challenging situations can be overcome by working together. The simple moral story of Brundibár is profoundly underwritten by its dark history. The opera was written and performed by Jewish prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp that would shortly thereafter meet their ultimate end – a point emphasized in various details of the PBSO production and discussed freely with the audience during an open discussion at the end of each show.

Brundibár: A quick plot recap

The story begins with two children, Pepicek (Cadence Nickerson of the Cobscook Community Learning Center) and Aninku (Luna Lord of Rose M. Gaffney), who are in need of milk to help their sick mother. The children go to the square, where Brundibár (Hannah Maker of Washington Academy) the organ grinder receives steady donations from the public. Brundibár, however, is a bully, and he bullies the crowd and the children to prevent them from getting tips. The children leave, milk-less and distraught. “We are little and too few,” they sing. “We need more than me and you!”

During the night, the children are visited by three animal helpers, Sparrow, Cat, and Dog (Noah Carver of Jonesport Beals High School, Sydney Anderson of Elm Street School, and Mikayla Oakes of Washington Academy, respectively). The animals evaluate the situation before resolving to go and enlist the other children and their parents in the village. “Little children wake up too, we’ve a villain to undo!” Sang Dog as she gathered all the youth together.

The next day, groups of schoolchildren inspired by the animals head to the square. “Mommy, mommy, milk for mommy! We will form a singing army!” Together, they successfully challenge Brundibár and sing a rousing chorus that imparts the opera’s lesson: “When you take a stand, someone will lend a hand!”

Brundibár has the last line of the poem, rendering an appropriate reminder of the recurring nature of encountering those who would forcibly impose their will on others: “Nothing ever works out neatly – bullies don’t give up completely. One departs, the next appears, and we shall meet again, my dears! Though I go, I won’t go far! I’ll be back – Love, Brundibár!”

The PBSO performances and their meaning

“Together, we’re strong – that’s the message of the whole opera, and it works,” shared Sarah Dalton-Phillips after the performance on Wednesday, October 24th, in which 98 students from Beatrice Rafferty were in attendance. The students were extremely engaged with the performance and asked many questions during the Q&A session that followed – including one that opened the door to the discussion of how and when the opera was originally developed in the context of World War II.

Brundibár was written by Jewish prisoners in the Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. The Terezin camp was essentially a “fake” concentration camp that the Nazis devised to show foreign powers that they were not mistreating their imprisoned subjects, Conductor Greg Biss explained after the show. “But, in fact, a year after they put on the opera, they were brought to a real concentration camp and murdered,” Biss said.

The PBSO musicians used the same instruments used by the small orchestra in the Terezin camp, an original detail that made their task of learning their multiple roles an added challenge, Biss shared. The orchestra players weren’t the only ones that kept with the original theme. Chris Grannis and Fern Hilyard built the set with the goal of keeping it as similar as possible to the first production.

Brundibár sported a Charlie Chaplin mustache on account of Hitler’s own characteristic facial hair being owed to his fondness for the famous comedian. The two children leading the story wore blue and white striped outfits that were deliberately chosen as replicas of the clothes given to Jewish prisoners of the concentration camps.

 

Helen Swallow and June Gregory were the co-producers that brought Brundibár to Washington County “in part because of its history—the fact that despite the desperately hard times in which the play was originally produced, it nevertheless served as a source of joy and hope for participants,” provides Lauren Koss, Publicity Director for the Eastport Arts Center.