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Stage Fright

The children’s opera Brundibar inspires and terrifies

Nina Shen Rastogi
February 24, 2006

Brundibar, the children’s opera currently at the Yale Repertoryand moving to New York in April, comes with more baggage than its 40-minute shoulders can honestly be expected to bear. It not only represents a passionate collaboration between two artistic giants—Maurice Sendak as set designer and Tony Kushner as English librettist—but in its original incarnation, the Czech opera bore the dubious honor of having been performed 55 times at Terezin, where its composer, Hans Krása, had been incarcerated before his death at Auschwitz. All roles were played by children, and whenever actors went missing a new crop was recruited.

Kushner and Sendak published a picture book version of Brundibar in 2003, and as enchanting as the stage version is, it doesn’t capture the traumatic melancholy of the book. In the show, two small children face down Brundibar, a tyrannical organ grinder who goosesteps and sports a black moustache. It’s just scary enough for the matinee crowd, but you’d never know it was an allegory unless you’d already read that somewhere (though if you’re seeing Brundibar and haven’t already read that somewhere, chances are you’re 12).

Watching children perform is always fun, particularly if they’re amateurs—it’s a kick to watch the mix of intense pride and sheer terror that plays across their faces. I found myself remembering the kids I worked with during summers at the local JCC theater camp. (Through the quirks of Bay Area demographics, half the counselors were Asian, but we can all still recite the hamotzi flawlessly.) I was thinking about my campers when the chorus began the plaintive lullaby that rouses the townspeople to cast out Brundibar. For a split second, the children became my kids, over-emoting the overture to Oklahoma!—and then, like a jump cut in a horror film, they became the young singers at Terezin. In that brief flash, the show took itself—and me—to an unexpected place, infusing my warm memories with an unfamiliar terror.