Delightful children's opera emerged from terrible time
Once upon a fairy tale, two children had a sick mother who needed milk to make her healthy.
The children went to town to buy some, but could not afford it. They sang for money, but no one could hear their little voices in the crowd.
Meanwhile, an evil organ grinder named Brundibar grew jealous of the children and tried to stop them from singing. But three animals came to their rescue with a plan. They recruited all the children in the town to sing with the two siblings, defeating the organ grinder and emerging victorious.
Once upon a horror, Jewish children in the Terezin concentration camp sang "Brundibar," a children's opera about banding together to fight a bully and, allegorically, to fight the big bully: Adolf Hitler.
On April 19, the Central Illinois Children's Chorus will bring "Brundibar" to Champaign as part of Sinai Temple's service for Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom HaShoah, a memorial by Jews around the world for the 6 million killed in the Holocaust, said the Champaign temple's rabbi, Norman Klein.
"It's not a celebration. It's a commemoration," he said of the day, which technically occurs beginning the evening of April 20 into the next day. "It's such a terrible event in Jewish history."
The service also includes a candle-lighting ceremony "in memory of the people who died," Klein said. That's followed by prayers, including one asking for God's mercy on those who died and another, "a song about belief, despite whatever evil might have occurred."
"What makes this service so much different," Klein said, "is that we're having this children's opera as part of our service."
The opera, about 35 minutes long, was written and composed by Hans Krasa, himself a Jew, and Adolf Hoffmeister during the late 1930s. It became a play of dual purposes.
The Nazis used it, and Terezin, as a model to show the world that they were treating the Jews well – a mask, Klein said.
At the same time, the Jews "all viewed Brundibar as Hitler, because he was a bully," said Sandy Nieman, administrative director of the Children's Chorus. They also saw performing such music and such a story with a happy ending as a temporary escape from the atrocities, she said.
"What makes this opera unique in many ways is it was performed by Jewish children in a concentration camp ... for the purpose of displaying to the outside world a lie," Klein said. "What really happened is the cast kept changing because the children who participated were shipped off and killed.
"Even though the situation is terrible, the opera shows in some way love of life."
Annie Valocchi, an Urbana High School student, plays one of the siblings and found much to think about when studying the story. "You look at the opera, and it seems so simple," she said. "But then you learn about the history of it, ... it's all symbolic of the things that were going on at the time."
Valocchi's onstage sibling, Champaign Centennial High School student David Kessler, said he gets nervous thinking of the history of the play and hoping he does it justice. But when he's onstage, he focuses on his character. "I'm trying to think of being a kid," he said.
They and about two dozen of the Children's Chorus – a 31-year-old organization with young singers from Catlin to Monticello – came to perform the opera when the group offered its services to the temple, Nieman said. "They said, 'Well, yes, we'd like you to come, but we have something in mind.'
"While the service is of a serious nature," Nieman said, "it will end on an upbeat note. The opera is delightful, and it is meant for children to attend this service."
Klein said the service is meant for everyone in the community.
"It's very touching to be able to reproduce on some level the words and music of people who experienced the Holocaust, to be able to live for a moment their imaginary life (while performing), and then to think a little bit about their fates," Klein said. "Part of the reason we observe Yom HaShoah is to keep people's memories alive, so it won't happen again."
If you go
What: Holocaust Remembrance Day service and performance of the children's opera "Brundibar" by the Central Illinois Children's Chorus.
Where: Sinai Temple, 3104 Windsor Road, C.
When: 7 p.m. April 19, with a reception to follow service.
Who: Anyone is welcome to attend the child-appropriate service, said Rabbi Norman Klein.