Product of Terezin concentration camp survives as admirable, enjoyable children’s opera

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music

(on the first day of the Recovering Hidden Voices conference-festival)

Hans Krása: Brundibár (Bumblebee)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

21 August 2014, 7pm

The soloists for this production are members of the NZSM’s Young Musicians Programme with a chorus from Kelburn Normal School and a chamber orchestra of NZSM Classical performance students. It is conducted by NZSM Lecturer Dr Robert Legg and directed by NZSM alumni and artist teacher Frances Moore.

Hans Krása was a German Jewish composer who studied with Zemlinsky and also at the Berlin Conservatory and under Roussel in Paris.  He was born in 1899, and died in Auschwitz (it is assumed) in 1944.  The opera was completed in 1939, with a libretto by Adolf Hoffmeister, and it was performed many times in the Terezin ghetto (Theresienstadt).  This performance used a new English adaptation by Tony Kushner, which was often humorous with unexpectedly funny rhymes.

While the significance of the story about an evil organ-grinder (Brundibár) who prevents two children from getting milk for their sick mother can be seen in terms of Nazi persecution, on the surface it is a fairy-tale.

The production was enhanced by wonderful costumes and a colourful set.  The confined space on the platform at St. Andrew’s made it difficult, however, to see everything that was going on.  It would marvellous if the cast could stage it again in an auditorium with more room on its stage.  The large cast of mainly children plus a few singers from NZSM’s Young Musicians Programme and Classical Performance Programme (in one case) was complemented by an 11-piece student orchestra, plus at a couple of junctures a children’s orchestra of two violins, two descant and two tenor recorders.

The director, Frances Moore, also acted in the show.

Coincidentally, I had a couple of days before been alerted to the children’s opera with music by Gareth Farr that had been produced in 2009. Although I did not see that, it seems from the review I had just read that there were similarities. And there were occasions that reminded of Janáček’s wonderful opera The Cunning Little Vixen, recalling the characters of Cat, Dog and Sparrow.  There were also an ice-cream seller and other sellers, doctors, pickpockets, mayor (and Celia Wade-Brown was present) and mechanicals.

The villain was played in an accurate and bright, if not particularly threatening manner by Niklas Best.  Other important parts were performed by Canada Hickey, Bronwyn Wilde, Francesca Moore, Alexandra Gandionco and Beatrix Carino.  Notable too was Lucia McLaren-Smith as the milk seller, whose words were wonderfully clear.

The orchestra was very skilled, played accurately and made a good sound in both the bright, jolly music of much of the score, and also in the more solemn, thoughtful and sad passages.  However, given the light children’s voices, solos were in danger of being overwhelmed by the instruments if the singers were near them.  The same went for some of the spoken dialogue.

The show was full of variety and colour, not least when two girls dressed in dirndl skirts danced.  Throughout, the music was charming, as was the ensemble of violins and recorders.  The more experienced singers certainly stood out, not only from the excellence of the projection of their voices, but also in their greater use of facial expression.  Some of the chorus singing was in two or three parts, and the young performers acquitted themselves well here.  Intonation was usually very good, and it was obvious that a lot of work had gone on in rehearsals and at home, with the young players memorising their parts.  Words were very clear when the singing was in unison.

I was surprised, however, that the composer had much of the music set in the lower register of the children’s voices; where children excel is in the higher pitches, and the music would have been even more telling if these had been used more.

On the whole the singing was better from the middle of the performance onwards; the children were well warmed up by then, and also more confident.  Hopefully the second performance will have them in good form throughout.

The show was preceded by a specially made brief film titled Conversations with Vera, about Vera Egermayer, who survived Auschwitz and came to New Zealand, and had been a small child in Terezin when the performances took place there.  She is currently in Prague, and was interviewed actually in the theatre in Terezin where the first performances took place.  Aside from short clips from a film of an original performance in 1942, the remainder of the film had children either acting the part of Vera, or talking about her and their own reactions to her life and experiences.

Some of these were very good, but others spoke their lines too quickly to be clearly understood.  The last girl was excellent, and spoke clearly, with expression and sincerity.

All in all, this was a worthwhile and enjoyable children’s opera, and the performance was a tribute to all have worked on it.  The entire show, including film, was about an hour in duration, and so not too taxing for children in the audience.  Another performance will be held on Friday, 22 August 2014 at 6pm.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *