the music of children

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At first, the children and people of the town, in the Ljubljana children’s opera L. and I saw last night, followed the cheery organ grinder around the stage. We couldn’t understand the lyrics, but it seemed that everyone loved this charismatic character. And yet you felt uneasy as you watched him being hailed. Soon the townspeople realized, when they saw him steal milk money for the sick mother of two children, that the organ grinder had fooled everyone with his lovely tenor voice. In the end, the children won, light overcame darkness and the complexity of the adult world the children found hard to navigate in the beginning, became clear when the organ grinder was exposed. Hope was restored.

This opera was originally performed by the children of the Theresienstadt, or Terezin, concentration camp in occupied Czechoslovakia during WWII. Theresienstadt was touted as having many “cultural privileges.” In reality, though, it was a stopover on the way to Auschwitz.

“Brundibar,” an opera written for children’s voices by Hans Krasa, was originally performed in the Jewish orphanage of Prague in 1942. When Krasa was sent to Theresienstadt, he brought the score of “Brundibar” with him. The prisoners were allowed weekly performances of music and theatre and the children sang “Brundibar” many times. A special performance of Krasa’s opera was held at Theresienstadt for the Red Cross’ visit as a way to show how good life was at the camp. After the performance, the children and the composer were taken to Auschwitz and killed upon arrival.

Part of the opera was later used in a Nazi propaganda film.

In the final scene on the Ljubljana stage last night, after the original ending of the opera, a cheerful downfall of the organ grinder, images of WWII were shown in video montages above the heads of the thirty or so young performers as each child, one at a time, brought a toy or book or stuffed animal and placed it in a spotlighted piece of stage, then exited, until all the children were gone.

The production showed the horror of polarity. The sweetness of a child’s voice against the backdrop of hostile, violent, bigoted hatred. How could anyone hear the sound of children singing and still feel hatred? How could anyone not have seen that those children could have been their own? Different race, different religion, different culture–what did it matter? Why would it ever matter?

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