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Brundibár: A Tale for our Times

The next few weeks will see the Opera North Youth Company performing Brundibár in the Howard Assembly Room, as well as taking part in the Brundibár Arts Festival at Sage Gateshead – a fitting way to celebrate this seminal work.

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We caught up with the cast and creative team to find out how rehearsals are going and to capture their thoughts on Hans Krása’s thought-provoking children’s opera.

What makes Brundibár particularly special is its history. Originally written by Hans Krása for a Jewish orphanage in Prague, when it was finally performed there in 1942, Krása and set designer František Zelenka had already been transported to the Terezín concentration camp. Krása subsequently rewrote the piece from memory and adapted it for the instrumentalists incarcerated in the ghetto with him. It was performed there as part of the infamous Red Cross visit in 1944 which was filmed by the Nazis for propaganda purposes.

“The grainy black and white film shot by the Nazis in Terezín Ghetto includes a substantial section of Brundibár and it is impossible to watch this (and to visit this very setting in the Czech republic as we did in October 2019) without being deeply affected by it and the fate which befell the majority of the cast on screen.”

Nicholas Shaw, Conductor

The Opera North Youth Company performing on the Terezin stage

The opera tells the seemingly simple tale of two poor children, Aninka and Pepiček, who come up against the evil organ-grinder, Brundibár, as they try to get hold of some milk for their sick mother.

Sammy Mills, 16, who plays Brundibár in the show, was one of the members of the Opera North Youth Company who visited Terezín:

“Having visited Theresienstadt in person really provides a different perspective to the meaning of Brundibár. Seeing the actual places where people lived, and getting a sense of the conditions in which they lived, is a very humbling and powerful thing which really allows me to see the story in a different way.

“This opera reflects the struggles of working people in the late 1930s and early ’40s in Eastern Europe, and having visited the place where it was written makes it clear how much it would have meant to those performing and watching it.”

The Opera North Youth Company rehearsing Brundibár in the Mantle Music Studio

Underlying the story is a strong message of social justice as the young people in the community step forward to help Aninka and Pepiček and ultimately overcome Brundibár’s cruel authority.

“It’s about the power we have to create meaningful change when we come together and stand up for what we believe in. As such, I think this opera is saying something as urgent and important now as it was when Krása was writing it during the Nazi regime.”

PJ Harris, Director

Inspiration for the production, as well as the set and costumes, came from current protest movements championing social justice which are often spearheaded by young people, in particular Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ+ and climate change. Designer Anna Yates discussed her vision for the piece in a recent episode of the Artistic Futures podcast.

If this all makes the show sound rather dry and worthy, nothing could be further than the truth. At its heart, this is an opera designed to encourage children to sing and to perform and features an array of colourful characters, including an ice cream seller, a police officer, cats, dogs and even windows.

Fifteen-year-old Scarlett Banks, who sings Aninka has found being involved with this production incredibly valuable:

“Learning for an opera and especially learning to be a specific character in an opera has taught me a lot. I loved working with all the professionals – and working with a real orchestra is something I will never forget.”

Hazel Read, 14, who is playing her sibling Pepiček, adds:

“I have hopefully grown as a singer and a performer during this great experience.  Brundibár is a magical tale of two youngsters on a mission to save their dying mother. Will they prevail? Come and enjoy this lively, energetic, jovial production to find out!”

Brundibár will be performed at Sage Gateshead on Sunday 30 January 2022, with a further performance in the Howard Assembly Room on Monday 7 February 2022. Tickets are available online.

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