Brundibár Synopsis & Background


Brundibár Synopsis

by Hans Krása and Adolf Hoffmeister
English version by Joža Karas

A brother and sister, Little Joe and Annette, need to buy milk for their sick mother but have no money. They see the organ-grinder, Brundibár, playing his hurdy-gurdy on the street corner and collecting money from the townspeople. The children decide that they too will sing and collect money, but they are laughed at and chased away by Brundibár.

As night approaches, a group of animals encourage the children to stand up to the organ-grinder. The next morning, with the help of the neighborhood children, they sing a charming lullaby which earns them money from the townspeople. Brundibár tires to steal their money, but after a brief chase he is caught and the children sing a song of victory. 

Brunidbár Background

by Ben Jewell-Plocher (Director of Education)

Written before the start of World War II, Brundibár was performed over 55 times in the Theresienstadt Jewish camp-ghetto and is considered one of the most performed youth operas, receiving hundreds of performances each year around the world. Also known as Terezín, the camp-ghetto supported a cultural community amidst the atrocities of the Holocaust. Brundibár was even used several times by the Nazis as propaganda, first in a film entitled “Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt” (The Führer Gives the Jews a City) and again on June 23, 1944 during an inspection visit by the International Red Cross. The plays, music, poems, paintings, and other works of arts created by the prisoners of Terezín which survive today are a testament to how art, as one survivor wrote, “transcended itself and acquired a dimension of sheer survival.”

Composer Hans Krása and librettist Adolf Hoffmeister originally wrote Brundibár as an entry for a children's opera competition organized by Czechoslovakian government in 1939. The results of the competition were never announced and a 1941 attempt to perform the work at the Prague Jewish Orphanage was thwarted as martial law and deportations began. A production without orchestra took place August 1942 at the Jewish Children's Home, Hagibor. However, neither author was there to see the performance since Krása had already been deported to Terezín and Hoffmesiter, thanks to Brundibár had received an invitation to London and returned to Czechoslovakia only after the liberation. 

The following June, Rudolf Freudenfeld, stage director for the Hagibor performance, smuggles the piano score into Terezín and Krása set about re-orchestrating the work for available instruments. Vedem, a secret magazine created by a group of about 100 boys ages 13 to 15, chronicled the start of rehearsals:

The first rehearsals were mostly boring. They were held in a dusty attic with a screeching harmonium and suffocating heat. The choir sang "This is little Pepiček..." twice, learned another verse, repeated "Brundibár defeated..." and then gladly escaped the stifling atmosphere to get a breath of fresh air. In the meantime the candidates for solo parts stood with trembling voices before the sweating Rudi (Rudolf Freudenfeld) and sang "la la la la la" after him. We were on tenterhooks to know who would get what parts and who would say a few more words that anyone else on stage.
(Rudolf Lauf)

Brundibár received its official premiere on September 23, 1943, in the attic hall of the Magdeburg barracks. In the 54 official and countless unofficial performances that would follow the cast continually changed as people were deported to the extermination camps. Krása would compose several more works in Terezín, including Overture for Small Orchestra, before his own death in Auschwitz on October 16, 1944.

The opera all but disappeared after WWII until Joža Karas, a professor at the University of Hartford, became acquainted with Terezín survivor Eliška Kleinová. Using a piano reduction and complete score provided by Kleinová, Karas created a transcription and English translation for the work's North American premiere in Ottawa, Canada, in 1977. 

Raise Up Your Voice

by Martha Collins (stage director) and Jesse Martins (Youth Opera Music Director)

When we first learned about Brundibár, we were profoundly moved by the history surrounding the work - that of it having been performed by children in the Terezín camp-ghetto. As we delved more into the lives and writings of these children, most of whom were murdered under the Nazi regime, we became deeply inspired and humbled by these young people who strove to stay artistically alive under such prohibitive conditions. It became important to us that the companion piece we created to go with Brundibár should not use words and stories created by us, but rather the actual words of young people. The search led us to the diaries and letters of children throughout the world written while they were living through the challenges of intolerance in its many forms.

In 1948, Winston Churchill said "Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it". It is important that we remember the stories of these children. We found wisdom in the words of these inspiring young people who were questioning the world that adults had created; these children who were able to see the world through a lens of what life could be when not limited by politics, hatred or indoctrination.