Two operas that have their origins in the Nazi concentration camps and have new and urgent significance for the 21st Century. Discovered and restored in the 1990s, it is time for a new generation to show how these visionary works about tyranny have a deeply necessary and humane message for a world in which history is ominously repeating itself.
Brundibar by Hans Krasa and The Emperor of Atlantis by Viktor Ullman share the central theme of tyranny: How it renders its victims voiceless, yet contains the seeds of its own destruction and can be defeated by giving a voice to the voiceless, culminating in collective action.
The Jewish intellectual elite of Prague – writers, artists, musicians and composers – were sent to Terezin. Within months, a library was created from smuggled books, a school was founded, plays, cabaret and operas were performed. Artists recorded the life around them. Composers wrote music for the ever-growing community. These two operas show how the work created there was remarkable not just in its quality, but for the way it became a form of artistic resistance that gave hope and strength to thousands of camp inmates.
Tragically, Krasa, Ullman, their librettists, most of the children, singers and musicians were sent to Auschwitz, where they died in the gas chambers. But the manuscripts survived and were later pieced together.
The 1990s Production
John Abulafia, then artistic director of Mecklenburg Opera played an important part in restoring these two masterpieces and giving them their first professional production.
Abulafia wrote the English performing version of Brundibar. He also commissioned the English translation of the restored Emperor of Atlantis. Working with a musicologist and conductor to piece together and restore the original score.
Directed for the stage by Abulafia, the first UK professional productions of both operas premiered at London’s South Bank Centre. The BBC then screened the production of Brundibar on VE Day 1995. Scenes from Abulafia’s production of The Emperor of Atlantis were featured in the BBC documentary The Music of Terezin.
The 21st Century Production
After Eden’s new productions and education projects will be directed by Laura Attridge and designed by Isa Shaw-Abulafia. They will offer a fresh, dynamic take on these ever hauntingly relevant operas, which are a potent mix of popular theatre and beautiful, eloquent music. They are angry and subversive works with a strong streak of fantasy, wit and tenderness. In performance, they go straight to the heart.
Brundibár by Hans Krasa
Brundibár is an opera written for children. No more than forty minutes long, it was composed in 1938 by Hans Krása, with lyrics by Adolf Hoffmeister, as an entry for a children’s opera competition. It received its premiere in German-occupied Prague and was performed by children at the Jewish Orphanage in Belgicka Street. Brundibár had one additional performance in the Hagibor building before the mass transports of Bohemian and Moravian Jews to Terezín began in 1942. In July 1943, the score of Brundibár was smuggled into camp, where it was re-orchestrated by Krása for the various instrumentalists who were available to play at that time. The premiere of the Terezín version took place on 23 September 1943 in the hall of the Magdeburg barracks.
Brundibar: 1994 Mecklenburgh Opera production filmed by the BBC
Music of Terezin
This is a remarkable BBC documentary made in 1993 about the musicians and the cultural life in the Teresienstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia during WWII. The film, directed by Simon Broughton, tells the story of the four main composers who were active in the ghetto: Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas, Hans Krása and Viktor Ullmann, and reveals how and why the musical life developed.
The Brundibar Education Project
Phase One – 2019
We devised, tested and developed the model and the process of the Brundibar Education Programme in a Pilot Project from September to November 2019. We worked with Kentish Town Primary School, The London Mozart Players and the Jewish Museum in Camden.
We ran an eight-week series of workshops with Year 5 at Kentish Town Primary working in close collaboration with their teacher and other staff. We designed the project so that every child could find a role either as a maker, puppeteer, singer or storyteller, sometimes combining these roles. We encouraged all the children to take possession of the Brundibar story and make it their own. The Year 5 children felt a great sense of pride and ownership in their work.
We saw how the project’s combination of Art, Design, Music, Drama, Making and Puppeteering meant that every child could participate enthusiastically, build their existing skills, discover new skills, produce work that was a source of pride and in several cases, overcome delibitating social inhibitions. This project culminated in two performances. The first was at the Jewish Museum in Camden for a paying audience. The other was in front of their whole school. In both performances the children performed – singing, speaking, puppeteering – with abundant energy, joy and conviction. Both audiences responded with great enthusiasm.
The project funded by the Arts Council of England, Little Butterflies Trust and supported by the Dennis Marks Trust and Jewish Museum.
Phase Two – 2020
Having developed the project further, After Eden will run the Education Programme with 60 Year 5 children at Ecclesbourne School. They will learn the opera, design and make puppets. They will be joined by the school’s Percussion Group.
They will stage the opera at Fairfield Hall on June 30th 2020.
Phase Three – 2021
The Terezin Operas Double Bill After Eden Arts Foundation will produce a double bill of both Terezin Operas at the Ashcroft Theatre on June 10th 2021.
Our team of gifted young creatives includes director Laura Attridge, designer Isa Shaw Abulafia and conductor Karin Hendrickson. The cast of Brundibar will be The Emerald Music School Choir, choirmaster Clare Caddick.
The children will be from at Croydon and surrounding areas: some of them may have already participated in our Education Workshops.
The Emperor of Atlantis will be performed by six of today’s leading young opera singers. Our orchestral partner for this full production will be the London Mozart Players.
Here is a film in which the children give their feedback on the Project.
Feedback from the children, parents and teachers
I was so proud of how we went from knowing nothing about opera, to performing for an audience, in such a short time. – Amelia
The puppets we made looked fantastic, they were very realistic – Eva
My little sister asked “Where did you buy those amazing puppets?” – Sophie
Everybody sang their hearts out! – Suzi
Even if someone slipped up, we just kept going and it still sounded good – Arthur
It was really good working with other adults from outside the school – Eva
This was very different to other assemblies, much more professional! – Rocco
I felt privileged to be part of the first school performance – Amayah
It wasn’t long, but like they say, quality not quantity! – Louis
Brundibar’s appearance got a big laugh from both audiences, which was very good to hear – Eva
I really liked how similar our production was to the Maurice Sendak picture book – Max
I was really surprised at how many members of the public payed to see us at the museum – Jaber
I’m proud of the people who learned the introduction lines so quickly – Jack
I really impressed myself by learning all the lyrics and lines – Fred
When they said puppets, I thought they meant hand puppets – I was amazed when I saw what we’d be using- Oscar
The show selling out was such a good feeling! – Queenie
I wish my parents could get more tickets, it sold out really quickly – Rocco
I thought we would do a normal assembly; it was great to have much more time to get it ready – Riley
We’ve never done an opera before, and it was great to find out we could do it! – Sophie
Our parents came back because they liked the show so much – Freddie
The action scene with the dog was really funny, like a 3-D movie – Max
I was very impressed by the solo performers’ bravery; I could never do that! – Louis
You could tell a lot of effort went into all of it – Sophie
The audience really liked the singing, and it was nice when they laughed for the puppets – Sean
There was no arguing and fighting about the roles or who was doing what – Amelia
Let’s do another one! – Chestnut Class, unanimously
(On a scale of 1 – 10) Did the children engage with the Brundibar Opera project? Score: 10
The children had an excellent time during the whole production process. They talked about it a lot outside of rehearsal and were excited about the performance.
(On a scale of 1 – 10) Did the children develop confidence as a result of taking part? Score: 10
This will have been an opportunity for lots of the children to undertake some solo / group singing in front of a large audience for the first time.
(On a scale of 1 – 10) How well did the children respond to making art in the form of puppets from recycled and found objects?
Children were excited about this and seemed to understand the importance of it.
(On a scale of 1 – 10) Did the project enhance the children’s ability to work creatively in teams? Score: 10
Through the creation of the puppets to rehearsing the opera and using the puppets, the children worked collaboratively to bring the whole performance together.
(On a scale of 1 – 10) Did the After Eden team create an inclusive environment? Score: 10
All children were encouraged to be involved at all times!
(On a scale of 1 – 10) Did the After Eden team work well with the school to ensure the success of the project? Score: 10
Communication was quick and easy from both sides.
(On a scale of 1 – 10) How would you rate the standard of the final performance at the Jewish Museum? Score: 10
The children were so excited to perform at the museum. They all acted and sang beautifully and put on a great performance with a strong message.
(On a scale of 1 – 10) Was the feedback about the project from the children positive? Include feedback below if appropriate. Score: 10
The children have all been really positive about the whole experience.
(On a scale of 1 – 10) How has the school as a whole benefitted from year 5 taking part in the Brundibar project? Score: 8
It was fantastic for the children to see a very different type of performance carried out, introducing them to a different form of theatre.
What will be the legacy, for staff and children, after working on the Brundibar Opera project?
Members of staff involved have a better understanding of how to incorporate puppetry and singing into their performances.
Other teachers in School have a better idea of options for class assemblies.
Yes! Please come back and work with us again!
– Johnny Chapman
Year 4 Class Teacher / Drama Lead
I wanted to say thank you to you and your team for giving the children in my son’s class the opportunity to work on the Brundibar project. It is such great music and at the same time, being a direct voice from the past, it keeps alive the memory of those who created it and who were murdered with so many others. It is so important in a time of increasing extremism and hatecrime.
If there is a possibility, it would be great if this project also could take place in primary schools in Germany, particularly in the East. There’s been a shocking surge in people voting the right-wing party AfD whose leaders promote nationalist views and call the Holocaust “a birds poo on German history”. It would help if children could learn about the history through music as there are less and less eyewitnesses who can tell about it.
We had an inset day at the school on Friday to talk about how we support and help autistic pupils, which involved a self-reported survey of these pupil’s likes and dislikes. I’m super happy to report that one of the kids in my class listed ‘working on puppets and the opera’ as a something he’s good at / a favourite thing to do!
The other finalists were playing videogames, going rock climbing, and reading stories. You, and everyone at After Eden, should be extremely proud of how inclusive and fun you’ve made this project to get a response like this from these kids. Many many thanks!
Credits: Megan Amis – Photography. Robert Gershinson – Videography.