Sweet Briar Theatre stages ‘Brundibár’

| March 26, 2014

Sweet Briar’s Performing Arts Division and the Sweet Briar Theatre will present Tony Kushner’s translation of “Brundibár,” the opera that was originally performed by Jewish children in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia.

Sen. and Mrs. Elliot and Rosel Schewel are underwriting the production. In return, they asked that the show be marketed to young audiences in the area.

“It’s a Holocaust story and that’s one of the reasons [we’re supporting it],” Rosel Schewel said, noting she and her husband are most interested in making sure that what happened during World War II is not forgotten.

Pepicek and his sister (Shannon McCarthy ’16 and Emma Kiely ’16), check on their sick mother (Emelie Wurster ’17) in Sweet Briar’s production of Hans Krása’s family opera, “Brundibár.”

The opera will be performed at 7:30 p.m. April 3-5 and 2:30 p.m. April 6 in Murchison Lane Auditorium at the Babcock Fine Arts Center. Admission for the April 3 performance is free for all students and teachers. For all other performances, admission for non-SBC patrons is $10 for adults, $7 for seniors, $5 for students and free for children younger than 12 and for SBC community members. Tickets go on sale Monday, March 24. Call (434) 381-6120 or email boxoffice@sbc.edu for reservations. To purchase tickets by credit card, please visit www.lynchburgtickets.com.

Although written in 1938, “Brundibár” was first performed in 1942 at a Jewish orphanage in Prague. By then, composer Hans Krása had been transported to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in the city of Terezín, and librettist Adolf Hoffmeister had fled. Most of the orphans were soon reunited with Krása at the camp, where more than 150,000 people were held for months or years en route to extermination camps. Many died of disease, malnutrition or abuse before transport.

At Theresienstadt, Krása recreated the opera from memory and the partial piano score he smuggled in with him. Along with set designer František Zelenka, they staged the opera 55 times in 1943 and 1944 — with an ever-changing cast. If their jailors realized the mustachioed title character of Brundibár represented Hitler, or noted veiled anti-Nazi references, they tolerated the insolence.

In fact, in 1944, the Nazis famously received a Red Cross delegation at Theresienstadt to prove that prisoners were being treated humanely. The visitors saw a beautified Jewish settlement depicting thriving commerce, comfortable conditions and happy children, including those who performed in a special production of “Brundibár.” The ruse worked and the Nazis used the performance and the façade they had created to make a propaganda film to show the world.

Shortly after the Red Cross visit, Krása, Zelenka and many of the residents still left in the camp were sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

In the opera, Brundibár (Karl Lindevaldsen) is a tyrannical organ grinder who prevents a fatherless sister (Aninku, played by Emma Kiely ’16) and brother (Pepicek, played by Shannon McCarthy ’16) from singing in the marketplace to earn money to help their ailing mother (Emelie Wurster ’17). But good trumps evil when a sparrow (Ashlynn Watson ’16), cat (Mayalin Quinones ’16) and dog (Charlotte von Claparede ’16) and the children of the town band together to help the siblings chase Brundibár away.

Although it is believed that the only time the children of Theresienstadt were not forced to wear their identifying stars was during performances, Sweet Briar director Bill Kershner has chosen to add stars to the costumes, using different ones to represent all of the groups of people who were imprisoned at the camp. Similarly, each “Brundibár” character has a corresponding persona representing a prisoner.

The all-Sweet Briar orchestra will be dressed in prison garb and designer Cheryl Warnock is creating the “Brundibár” set to look as if it is inside the concentration camp. The idea, Kershner says, is to go beyond the storyline to convey the “sense of historical importance that [the opera] carries.”

He and his colleagues chose the opera — the first since the College committed to producing an opera every four years under the recently created Performing Arts Division and music theater major — both for its impact and its suitability for predominantly women’s voices. Jeff Jones is arranging the music for his orchestra; Krása had adapted the score for instruments available to him, which included unusual choices such as the accordion.

Kershner is excited to have Sweet Briar students in the pit instead of hired musicians. It’s another big step in the development of the College’s collaborative performing arts program, he says.

Jennifer McManamay

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Category: Music, Performing Arts, Theatre Arts