Saturday, August 2, 2014

Venues and Veneration

Fenya and the rest of the Cantilon Chamber Choir are currently in Debrecen, Hungary, at the Bela Bartok Choir Competition.  They've been in Europe for over a week now, having arrived in Venice and toured through Krakow and Prague. They've performed at churches, chapels, castles, and other places along the way, including a moving streetcar in Debrecen itself, but the most intriguing venue thus far has probably been The Attic Theater in Terezin, in the Czech Republic. There, they performed a children's opera by Hans Krasa called Brundibar.

The story of Brundibar is a simple one, like most folk tales or fairy stories.  As described by Wikipedia:
Aninka [in English Annette] and Pepíček (Little Joe) are a fatherless sister and brother. Their mother is ill, and the doctor tells them she needs milk to recover. But they have no money. They decide to sing in the marketplace to raise the needed money. But the evil organ grinder Brundibár [who represents Hitler] chases them away. However, with the help of a fearless sparrow, keen cat, and wise dog, and the children of the town, they are able to chase Brundibár away, and sing in the market square.

We got to see the Cantilon performance of Brundibar just prior to their leaving on tour, and it's a lively little piece, even if Fenya feels the English translation leaves quite a bit to be desired.  Knowing ahead of time that there is an allegorical element adds quite a bit of depth to the experience, but not as much as learning about its performance history.

You see, Brundibar was first performed in 1942, at the Jewish Children's Orphanage in Prague, where many children separated from their parents by the tumult of World War II had ended up.   It was not long, however, before most of that city's Jewish inhabitants were transferred to a concentration camp and ghetto.  The opera's composer and set designer were already there when the children arrived, so he recreated the score from memory and adapted it to the few instruments on hand.  In lieu of costumes, a painted backdrop featuring the animal characters had holes cut out through which the performers could stick their heads.

The play was performed in its improvised venue 55 times over 1943 and 1944, including a special performance for an inspection group from the Red Cross.  The Nazis duped them into thinking the ghetto was a livable space because so many inhabitants had been hurriedly shipped off to the extermination camp in Auschwitz just prior to their arrival.

Hitler sent a film crew to film the final performance of Brundibar, so it could be included in the propaganda film 'The Fuehrer Gives the Jews a City'.

As soon as the applause was finished, all the performers, children aged 8-16, were taken directly from The Attic Theater in Theresienstadt (the German name for Terezin) and loaded onto cattle trucks.

They were driven to Auschwitz, and there, most of them were gassed upon arrival, including the composer and all the musicians.

Performing in a space with so much history and emotional resonance would have to be a trying experience for anyone, and yet Fenya and most of the other choristers were grateful for the opportunity.  I can only imagine what a powerful experience it must have been, and what a precious memory it will make.

Cantilon has uploaded a video of their performance of Brundibar at the Attic Theater to their YouTube channel, but I haven't the heart to watch all of it yet.  Seeing children of the same age as the victims of that atrocity, my daughter among them, in the same space, singing the same joyful tunes, is almost too much for me to bear.  Knowing that their tour bus broke down en route and that arranging a replacement cost them their rehearsal time, makes their jet-lagged, European-heat-wave-wilted, but determined performance all the more impressive.

I can see the toll it takes on Fenya from the way she wipes her eyes at the end of their encore piece, but her seeing it through is a victory that, for me at least, will overshadow whatever else happens at the Bartok Competition.

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