‘Brundibar’: Children’s Chorus

An illustration by Maurice Sendak for Tony Kushner’s ”Brundibar.”

“Initially written for a 1938 arts competition sponsored by the Czechoslovak Ministry of Education and Culture, ”Brundibar” was an opera with a libretto by a playwright, Adolf Hoffmeister, and music by Hans Krasa. It had its premiere in a Jewish orphanage for boys. Subsequently it was performed 55 times at the Terezin concentration camp.

In several ways, therefore, the original version of ”Brundibar” is a children’s opera: it was written about children, for children among others, to be performed by children. Even while being used as propaganda in the Nazis’ ”showcase” concentration camp, ”Brundibar” was revised to reflect a more defiant attitude toward tyrants.

As imagined by Sendak and Kushner, the story is set in a precise moment of European history — the midcentury disaster of Nazism — and, daringly, they have compressed into ”Brundibar” both the story from the opera and its macabre history. Brundibar is a mustachioed organ grinder in a Middle European town square. The theatrically long lashes blooming around his eyes are a disguise: can you identify him through his makeup?

The story, though grim indeed, should become essential reading. Few other picture books deal with political action. ”Swimmy,” by Leo Lionni; ”Horton Hears a Who,” by Dr. Seuss; in its own pacifist way, ”The Story of Ferdinand,” by Munro Leaf. For many children raised in comfortable circumstances, encountering a bully on the playground is their first experience of powermongery. Is it ever too early to learn to recognize oppression for what it is?”

Brundibar’: Children’s Chorus
Published: November 16, 2003
The New York Times

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