The children’s opera Brundibár is a fairytale with a fairly familiar message: good triumphs over evil. But place the work in the context of Theresienstadt, the Nazi concentration camp in Czechoslovakia where it was performed between 1943 and 1944, and that message is thrown into much sharper relief. The resemblance to Hitler of Brundibár, the evil organ-grinder who claims the town square as his own, was obvious to adult audiences. But not, insists its lead singer, to its cast.
“The grownups interpreted it as this bad man who bullies everyone,” says Greta Klingsberg, who played lead character Aninka. “But the children never did. To us, Brundibár was the most popular character. He wore a moustache and, when he sang, it went up and down. We found him very funny.”
The opera, by the Jewish-Czech composer Hans Krása who was an inmate at Theresienstadt, tells the story of a brother and sister who try their hand at busking in the square, only to be chased away by the garishly dressed and talentless musician Brundibár (colloquial Czech for a bumblebee). So the siblings hatch a plot to turn him out. “At the end, when he’s thrown out, we welcomed him back on stage with open arms. He was one of us, our lovable Brundibár. It was not for us to see a political message.”
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