Canadian Children’s Opera Company. Brundibár. Hans Krása (composer), Joel Ivany (director), Dean Burry (artistic director), Teri Dunn (music director). At Harbour Front Centre Theatre. March 2-5.
When the children’s opera Brundibár premiered at a Jewish orphanage in Prague in 1942, its composer, Hans Krása, had already been deported to Theresienstadt, the concentration camp where the opera would be performed over fifty-five times. Seventy-five years after the Prague premiere of Brundibár, the Canadian Children’s Opera Company presented the opera this weekend in a masterful staging by Joel Ivany.
In keeping with the Canadian Children’s Opera Company’s tradition of featuring Canadian content in their performances, artistic director Dean Burry framed Krása’s opera with For the Children, a cantata by the late Canadian composer, Robert Evans, which features poetry written by children in Theresienstadt. Joel Ivany, a champion for adding 21st-century relevance to classic works, ingeniously incorporated snippets of the Canadian Malcolm Clarke’s Academy Award-winning documentary, The Lady in No. 6, about Alice Sommer-Herz, a Holocaust survivor whose son was a member of the original cast of Brundibár.
These Canadian additions to the work added thoughtful relevance to the performance. Evans’ cantata alternates between moments of poignancy, terror, and bravery. At times a drum evoked war sounds amidst the children’s voices. The final movement of the cantata diverges from settings of the children’s poetry to feature Hebrew text, as well as the words “Dona eis requiem,” the Latin words for “grant them rest,” with which the CCOC closed their performance. Teri Dunn, music director of the CCOC, led a chamber ensemble in nuanced performances of both Evans and Krása’s music.
Brundibár has often been compared to Hansel and Gretel, as it features two child protagonists who triumph over an evil opponent. Ivany’s staging featured elements reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel, as in the whimsical dream sequence where children danced, acted like animals and held little stars illustrating the night sky. The performers ranged from ages 3-18, whom Ivany skilfully wove in and out of tableaux, choreography and village scenes.
Performances from CCOC members were strong throughout, and each member of the chorus were fully committed to their characters. Musically, the choir sang beautifully in tune and with complete rhythmic and textual commitment, with confident solo voices shining throughout the piece. Brundibár’s score calls for a range of colours from its performers, and the CCOC effortlessly shifted from moments of floating, delicate beauty to militaristic motifs to joyful, childish dances.
In 1944, Hans Krása and all the children who performed in Brundibár were moved from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz, where they were killed shortly after arriving. In the CCOC’s production of Brundibár, hope, love and joy in making art are highlighted as the piece’s message.
At one point in the footage from The Lady in No. 6 used by the CCOC, Alice Sommer-Herz states that she doesn’t believe in hate, as hatred only breeds hatred, and that music is the only thing that gives her hope. In these times where hatred has felt more and more present, seeing the CCOC, a choir comprised of young people from all different backgrounds, perform this powerful work at the highest level, pays tribute to Sommer-Herz’s and the original performers and creators of Brundibár’s memory and certainly gives grounds for hope.
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