International Opera Theater’s Elegy to Children Lost
Since it started nearly a decade ago, the Philly-based International Opera Theater has produced some 10 original operas and related works. These have involved the talents of artists from throughout the world and leading artistic organizations, including the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Smithsonian.
It calls itself "opera that moves," a description most apt for "Brundibar and The Children of Theresienstadt" its upcoming production that opens on Jan. 27 at the Ibrahim Theater in Philadelphia.
First performed in 2003, this run marks the seventh time the company has produced the work, written by Karen Saillant, the IOT’s artistic director.
What inspired her to write the work is "Brundibar," a short opera for children written by Czech composer Hans Krása in 1938. The opera wasn’t performed until 1942 at a Prague Jewish orphanage during the Nazi occupation. By the following year, most of the children that performed in that premiere had been transported to Theresienstadt, the concentration camp near Prague, along with Krása. Reunited with his cast, he rescored his opera for the instrumentation available in the camp and presented in the camp in September, 1943. The following year, it was performed for visiting Red Cross officials on a visit to the camp; later the opera was filmed for Nazi propaganda purposes - which proved to be the last of its 55 performances: upon completion, the cast and composer were transported to Auschwitz where they were exterminated.
Krása’s opera concerns an impoverished boy and girl that attempt to make money by singing in order to buy milk for their sick mother. An organ grinder, Brundibar, frightens them off; but they join forces with some animals and the town’s children to scare him off.
The opera’s theme of overcoming oppression is apparent; but for her adaptation - an elegy, really - Saillant uses a play-within-a-play technique, setting a performance of the opera in the camp where the interred children are preparing the final performance of the opera (the one recorded by the Nazis.)
For this - and previous productions - Saillant assembles a cast of mostly pre-teens, with some
returning cast members and new performers as young as five.
"I took that opera as a centerpiece, so I could set it in the camp at the last performance. There were 15,000 children who went through this camp, because it was a way station to Auschwitz, and only 100 children survived," Saillant explained.
At International House in West Philly, Saillant finishing her third rehearsal with the full cast. Even after all this time, the story still has an impact on her.
"They take their curtain call as if they were at the camp, for me that is a metaphor; they were full of energy and joy telling the story of Brundibar. And at the end each child steps forward and say the name of a child who died at the camp, who was their same age," she explained.
"So we have an enduring connection, to the Holocaust and to all children in all cultures who never are able to return home because of war or genocide. I wrote the script in such a way that they never say the word Nazi. It’s my intention is to expand the frame of reference. This opera is about, simply, children not being able to return home."
Despite the hard subject matter, Saillant said that participating in the opera is often a transformative experience for the kids, "Parents have told me that this is a good way to approach this subject. In the camp, it was the music, art and literature teachers who taught the children in secret that enabled the vitality and resilience of everyone in the camp to sustain through this terrible time. They were making music, art and poetry. It speaks to the power of art to transcend the horror of their reality."
Despite or because she is working with non-professionals, Saillant makes the two hour rehearsals fun for the young performers and has various techniques that make non-singers into singers. She has also added material as the work has developed. " There are older girls who play the roles of ’windows’ to symbolize the spirit of the mothers who lost their children. In my research I found out other classical music was performed in the camp, so I added some of that, Strauss and Ravel. They sing in German, French and all of the children sing in Czech and English. Last year I added new parts for some of the boys who have been with us for a few years whose voices have changed. In the camp there was a group of boys who created a secret newspaper, they would write the stories by hand and circulate it at night," she said.
It is one of Saillant’s ongoing projects that fit into IOT’s mission to open opera up to more reality-based themes and to more audiences. Saillant has plans to tour and produce Brundibar around the globe because of its universal message of genocide and atrocities against children of war, that continues, unfortunately to be as timely as ever. "We usually dedicate each production to the children of genocide or war. This year, well, the production is dedicated to the children of Sandy Hook," Saillant said.
International Opera Theater is based both in in Philadelphia and in Italy. Two years ago, Saillant directed an opera adaptation of The Decameron, which was an ambitious collaboration of contemporary composers. It sold out. This year Saillant’s new opera "Buffalo Soldier" was a huge success at the Teatro Valle Theater in Rome. Later this year they will have their Philadelphia premiere of "Iago" and return to Italy for their newest work "Camille Claudel."
"Brundibar and The Children of Theresienstadt" runs Jan. 27-Feb. 10@ The Ibrahim Theater; International House, 3701 Chestnut St. Philadelphia, PA. Click here for more information.