As opera librettos go, Brundibar’s is unusual, its heroes are two fatherless and penniless children trying to raise money to heal their sick mother. They do so by singing in the village square but a cruel bully, an organ grinder called Brundibar, chases them away. All seems lost but with the help of a cat, a dog and a sparrow the children succeed in defeating the evil organ grinder.
It may sound like a fairytale where plucky children triumph against all odds but the story behind Brundibar is one of terrible darkness. Written as a children’s opera in 1938 by Jewish Czech composer, Hans Krása, it was performed in 1943 by the children of Terezin transit camp, a performance that became famous and added another dimension to its “Good versus Evil” storyline.
Brundibar was performed several times, although the cast often changed — the children were sent to Auschwitz.
There is one chilling picture, taken by the Nazis for propaganda purposes. It shows a group of children against a theatrical backdrop; some of them are wearing crude make-up but what strikes the viewer is their blank faces, totally devoid of any joy or excitement.
However, John Abulafia, who first brought his Mecklenburgh Opera production of the work to the UK in 1992, is keen to point out that Brundibar is much more than its terribly sad history. It is an engaging piece of music and the perfect vehicle to introduce children to opera.
Although in the past few years Brundibar has been performed in many countries, Abulafia believes its rightful place is the classroom. Brundibar, he argues, can help teach children about the Holocaust and the Second World War in general. And it was with that in mind that he came up with the Brundibar Opera Project to help children stage their own production.
The beginnings were auspicious: in 2019 Abulafia and the team at After Eden Arts Foundation in London worked with the teachers and pupils of Kentish Town Primary School to stage a full-blown production of Brundibar. The kids were taught how to sing opera, create the background scenery and costumes and build their own puppets.
The performance at the Jewish Museum in Camden— in front of the whole school, parents and friends — was a huge success. Abulafia and his team were ready for more.
Then Covid struck and face-to-face training, let alone live performances became impossible. The project was put on the backburner. But not for long.
One of the most interesting aspects of the pandemic is that — in spite of its devastating effect on the arts — it has also forced people to think outside the box and come up with unusually creative solutions. And this is what happened with the Brundibar Opera Project, which by necessity morphed into the Brundibar Digital Opera Project.
Abulafia and team devised a series of short step-by-step videos taking children through the disciplines needed to mount their own opera, starting with a history lesson, moving on to teaching acting skills, designing, singing, puppet-making, film-making and directing. All done in a simple and engaging way.
But with so many companies putting their offerings online, the danger was that the Brundibar Digital Opera Project would remain a hidden jewel. However, they had a stroke of luck when it was picked by the London Mozart Players as part of their “100,000 challenge”.
“The Challenge is a huge campaign, which aims to give 100,000 children access to various aspects of classical music,” explains Abulafia.
“Anybody going to the London Mozart Players website, educators, schools and even individuals, can access all the videos.”
However, he is convinced that the best way to meaningfully engage in the project is by connecting with teachers.
And now that life is returning to some sort of normality he’s been in contact with a number of schools, both in the UK and abroad, including Berlin, New York and Austria.
He’s particularly excited about the contacts made in Croydon. “We’ve been talking with a group of religious education teachers based there. One of the reasons we chose Croydon is because it’s where asylum seekers go,” he explains.
“There are children from everywhere, from Sudan, from Iraq, from Syria.”
Brundibar’s story deals with marginalisation and bullying, themes many of these children can relate to and the project can also work as a tool to tackle these problems and enhance children’s self-confidence.
But most of all, feels Abulafia, the Brundibar Digital Opera Project contains all the elements children need to be able to understand Second World War history and the Holocaust.
“We want them to understand what happened all those years ago and see that something like that is still happening today.
“So, in a way, we are also helping them understand about the world today. We are asking ‘what do you think, what are you going to do about it?’
“The project is a unique piece of Holocaust education, because it’s not just about receiving the knowledge, it’s also about reacting to it and then coming up with a creative response: they can do their own production, design, act, sing, film.
“What’s happening at the moment in Ukraine is very stressful and puzzling for children and, as the project is performance-based, one of the fundamental skills they learn by doing it is how to keep themselves calm before performing, so the work they do will help reduce stress and anxiety.”
The Brundibar Digital Opera Project can be accessed on london-mozart-players.teachable.com/courses