The current Canadian Children’s Opera Company show; Brundibár, represents something of a new direction from the company. Previous shows, at least those I’ve seen, have been quite light and based, typically, on fantasy, fable or popular history. The current offering is altogether more serious. At its core is Brundibár, a children’s opera written by Hans Krása for a Prague orphanage in 1939 and subsequently performed over fifty times in the “showcase” concentration camp at Terezin.
Brundibár is the story of two fatherless children who need to get milk for their sick mother but they have no money. They try busking but are driven off their spot by the bullying organ grinder Brundibár with the help of his police sidekicks. With the help of a bird, a cat and a dog, the children rally all the children of the town to stand up to the bully and raise the necessary cash. The allegory, then or now hardly needs spelling out.
In Joel Ivany’s production the opera itself is flanked by excerpts from The Lady in No.6; Malcolm Clarke’s award winning film about a 109 year old pianist survivor of the Holocaust and by additional music by Robert Evans. It’s an effective framing. Throw in the presence in the audience of John Freund who saw the piece performed in Terezin by, of course, casts who would a few months later find themselves on transports to Auschwitz (also the fate of the composer) and you can see that this is no routine children’s opera event.
It’s not just a piece of arid didacticism though. It’s a very enjoyable show. Krása’s score, for twelve piece chamber orchestra, is very good indeed and the band under the direction Teri Dunn do a fine job with it. I really want to hear it again. The production is lively and engaging with clever use of the animal puppets and the performances are very good; especially the two children Pepiček and Aninka sung last night by Clara Moir and Kaiya Winter (there are two alternating casts). It’s an enjoyable way to spend an hour as well as a rather moving one.
I asked Artistic Director Dean Burry after the show about the reasons for putting on a fundamentally more serious piece. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, that he felt that we tend to underestimate children’s ability to deal with complex emotional and moral messages and he wanted to challenge that. I think he’s right and I look forward to seeing future shows under his leadership.
Brundibár is playing at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre and there are further performances today and tomorrow at 2pm and tonight at 7.30pm.