The show was a great success, and the government even incorporated part of it into a documentary it was sponsoring.
And then, soon after all the cast members and musicians performed the final victory chorus, most of the children were sent to Auschwitz and murdered.
The performances took place in 1943 and 1944 in the Nazi prison camp Terezín, near Prague. Among the usual victims--gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals and above all, Jews--the camp held many Czech artists and intellectuals. They stayed in this formerly idyllic resort village for a while, and then were shipped by the thousands to extermination in Auschwitz. Of the Czech Jews taken to Terezín, more than 97,000 died, of whom 15,000 were children.
The children and adults worked together to produce the hour-long opera Brundibár, which everybody but the Nazis understood to be less about a malevolent organ grinder than about Adolf Hitler.
The Führer actually thought the production was a splendid idea, and he had it worked into an elaborate ruse, in which Terezín was presented to Red Cross inspectors as a "model," humane camp. As soon as the satisfied Red Cross representatives left, the trains again began departing for Auschwitz.
Hans Krása's score for Brundibár received more than 50 performances at Terezín. Ironically, it was a greater hit there than it might have been under normal circumstances. In the past few years, though, interest in Brundibár and other works of artists held in Terezín has led to a great many recordings and concerts of Terezín material. There's even a version of Brundibár on Broadway right now involving playwright Tony Kushner and illustrator Maurice Sendak.
A different adaptation is being mounted in Tucson this weekend, thanks to Arizona Onstage Productions. Presented on the main stage of the Temple of Music and Art, the show involves 13 professional musicians, seven adult cast members and two dozen children. Kevin Johnson, the company's artistic director, is enlisting the kids from the BASIS school, where he teaches.
"We did a workshop of this last year with mainly sixth- and seventh-graders, and the children were quite moved by it," says Johnson. "But only half of them knew what the Holocaust was, and that kind of freaked me out."
So Johnson resolved to go public with the show, with the resources of his professional-level company.
The opera itself, composed in 1938, is ultimately quite positive and joyful. Still, the Czech-language Terezín performances included a few coded messages. In the finale, for example, the children should sing, "Who so loves his mother and father and his native land is our friend and may play with us." At Terezín, the lyrics became, "Whoever loves justice and will defend it and is not afraid is our friend and may play with us."
To provide context, Johnson has asked 15-year-old Colin Killick to write some additional text. Johnson is also bringing to town Ela Stein Weissberger, the only surviving member of the Terezín cast, to speak before each performance and at a fundraising dinner tonight (Thursday) at 6:30.
"What you're going to see is a workshop" version, Johnson notes, "but a workshop with full orchestra and cast and lighting and set and costumes, and I don't know how the hell I'm gonna do it, but it'll happen. It's too important not to do."