Lighthearted opera rose from place of despair

A children’s opera created by Jews in a Nazi concentration camp will be performed in Philadelphia.

Photos by Nathaniel Hamilton for NewsWorks

It may be fanciful fare, but it packs a wallop.

A children’s opera created by Jews in a Nazi concentration camp will be performed in Philadelphia. Despite its birthplace, “Brundibar” is a light musical sung by children the same age as the original cast.

It was first staged in Theresienstadt, one of the concentration camps of World War II, which appeared to offer civilized living to its Jewish prisoners. There were concerts, indoor plumbing, and flower gardens. But it was phony.

“It was a propaganda camp the Third Reich set up for the Red Cross,” said Karen Saillant, the director of the Philadelphia production of “Brundibar.”

“The Red Cross wanted to see a camp. So, for example in the bathroom they had sinks, but no water hooked up.”

“Brundibar” was conceived by a librettist and composer living in Czechoslovakia. The librettist happened to have most of the score with him when he was captured and sent to Theresienstadt. He rounded up children prisoners to play the parts, and the opera enjoyed 55 performances in the camp.

The story in the opera has very little to do with its circumstances. It’s a tale of children trying to raise money to buy milk for their ailing mother. They thwart the criminal intentions of an evil organ grinder (Brundibar of the title) with the help of talking cats and dogs. The kids on stage seem to be having a good time.

“It’s happy — like, all the animals are nice to them, and the kids are nice,” says 15-year-old actress Sydney Grant from Chesilhurst, N.J. “It’s a happy show, most of the time.”

It’s happy until the end. Saillant added a section where all 40 children lined on stage announce a name, one by one, from the original cast: Abraham Grossmont, 5; Mariam Balinska, 7; Isaac Pollack, 8; and on and on.

“These are children — we have lists of transports that we’ve gotten from Theresienstadt — who did not survive,” says Saillant.

It hits the audience like a punch in the chest.

“Because the children were being transported off the camp to Auschwitz, the children who played the characters were changing,” said Saillant. “The cat could be here today, and tomorrow be on a transport train.”

This is the fourth year Saillant has staged “Brundibar” in Philadelphia. Many of the children have been with her from the beginning, attracted to the family environment of the company.

A version of the opera was staged in Chicago in 2003 by Tony Kushner and Maurice Sendak, who also published an illustrated children’s book about the story.

“Brundibar” will run for five performances at The Ibrahim Theater of The International House at 3701 Chestnut Street on February 26, February 28, March 2, March 4, and March 6. For ticket information contact 215 545 4385 or visit internationaloperatheater.org

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.