Opera isn’t known for being kid-friendly. There’s the high drama, not to mention all the lust, death and countless jilted lovers. There are classics like Mozart’s The Magic Flute that are suitable for young audiences, but not many. Still, Rebecca Comerford didn’t have far to look when selecting an opera for Ojai Youth Opera’s first full-scale production. As the founder and director of OYO, Comerford wanted a socially relevant, age-appropriate opera that would serve the company’s mission of creating transformative experiences for performers and audiences alike. Brundibár by Czech composer Hans Krása stood out.
Brundibár tells the story of a young brother and sister who go to town to fetch milk for their sick mother. They don’t have any money so they decide to perform for coins, just as Brundibár, the town’s pompous organ grinder, does. The siblings sing but no one pays attention to them. The next day they receive help from some local children, and together their voices are heard. This angers the thieving and tyrannical Brundibár, but in the end the children are triumphant. They also learn a valuable lesson: They may be small, but together they are mighty.
Krása wrote Brundibár in 1938 and it was first performed in 1942 by the children of the Jewish orphanage in Prague. During World War II, Krása was sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp, where he revised the opera for the children as well as some adult musicians at the camp. They performed it more than 50 times from 1943 to 1944. The opera provided welcome entertainment, but it was also used as propaganda by the Nazis to perpetuate a cruel hoax that the conditions of Theresienstadt were anything but barbaric. In truth, most of the young performers, as well as Krása, were killed shortly after their last performance. Despite the tragedy, the opera did bring real joy. Later in life, one of the few young performers who survived the camp said, “The hours and hours which I spent, incredibly happy, during performances were the most profound experiences of my life.” After the war ended, the opera faded from view until 1986 when it was performed for Radio Prague.
Brundibár’s theme of children speaking truth to power resonated with Comerford. “Never underestimate the voice of a child,” she says. It also appealed to Opera Santa Barbara Artistic Director Kostis Protopapas, who wanted to incorporate a youth component into the opera’s season. Brundibár is being jointly produced by Ojai Youth Opera and Opera Santa Barbara, and it features 35 children, aged 7 to 17, from Ojai, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Oxnard and Camarillo. It also boasts the live performance of the Santa Barbara Youth Symphony, led by conductor Andy Radford.
In addition to rehearsing the libretto and music, the children have been learning about Brundibár’s history and the lessons it has to teach. “We wanted to create a safe space to talk about it and to learn from the past,” says Comerford, including how we might “build a more inclusive, tolerant and loving world.” Each performer studied the personal story of one of the original cast members and wrote a monologue about what they learned. They will perform their monologues before and after the opera, which runs approximately 40 minutes. Also, thanks to a grant from the Ojai Women’s Fund, OYO recently led workshops about Brundibár for 900 children in 15 local schools.
OYO has been educating and inspiring children in the art of opera since 2012. Its popular summer camps have exposed more than 200 young singers to the joy, and yes, high drama, of opera. Creating a full-scale production was the next logical step. Comerford and OYO are already on the lookout for their next production. (They plan to do one a year.) Their criteria is simple: The material must be inspiring, captivating and have the power to transform. If it’s an original work, all the better. Brundibár is a tough act to follow, but if it teaches us only one thing, it’s that a few determined people can do anything.
Brundibár will be performed on Saturday, May 13, at Libbey Bowl, 210 S. Signal St., Ojai. For tickets and more information, call 888-827-9754 or visit www.ojaiyouthopera.org/brundibar.