The idea that listening to classical music leads to moral improvement is an ideology that has come to be regarded with suspicion in recent years. An horrific counter-example of the disconnect between aesthetics and morals is found in Schindler’s List, where one soldier plays the Prelude from Bach’s English Suite no. 2 as all around him his colleagues massacre the Jews who have been discovered in hiding. And yet, one can still learn valuable moral lessons from classical music. This certainly was the overt purpose behind Opera Prometheus’s production of Brundibár, which was intended to commemorate performances of this children’s opera by Jewish groups during the Second World War.

Tom Burton (Brundibár) © David Goldman
Tom Burton (Brundibár)
© David Goldman

The driving spirit behind this production was Dr Joseph Toltz, a researcher based at the University of Sydney. These performances are an outgrowth of his interviews with Australian Jewish Holocaust survivors about their musical memories from places like Terezín (Theresienstadt), the model ghetto in which Brundibár was frequently performed in 1943-4. In the unusually detailed booklet the personal histories of several of his interlocutors were recounted: Jerry Rind, for instance, smuggled materials that were used in constructing the set for the Terezín performances from his carpenter’s shop, while Joe Neustatl was part of the audience for the Nazi’s propaganda film of the opera shot in 1944. 

The opera opened with a monologue recounting something of the history of the work in the ghetto. It was presented in the persona of the Rudi Freudenfeld, who smuggled the score into Terezín and rearranged it to suit the motley instrumental forces available. We learned that when certain SS members heard the work, “even the unfeeling cynics had been moved by the sweet music”. The opera also served as a rare opportunity for educating children in Terezín, where there was otherwise a bar on teaching.

<i>Brundibár</i> © David Goldman
© David Goldman

Adolf Hoffmeister’s libretto has a simple moral message which, in light of the opera’s subsequent performance history, takes on a particularly poignant allegorical significance. The young girl Aninka and her brother Pepíček have a sick mother and need to get milk for her (echoes of Humperdinck’s wildly popular Hansel und Gretel in the plot elements here and elsewhere). However, they are unable to pay, and their efforts to raise the money by singing are thwarted by the organ-grinder, the eponymous Brundibár. With the aid of a sparrow, cat and dog, who rally the children of the town, a lullaby is sung and the money is raised. Brundibár’s final attempt to commandeer this is thwarted, and good triumphs, as it must do in fairy tales. Many messages could be taken from this: the power of collective action over selfish individualism, or of genuine art over trash (Brundibár at one points admits that his music isn’t any good). But most importantly, it celebrates victory over injustice, the hope of all who passed through the ghetto, most of whom would die in other concentration camps.

Jaymie Perl (the Ice Cream Seller) with the Brundibár ensemble © David Goldman
Jaymie Perl (the Ice Cream Seller) with the Brundibár ensemble
© David Goldman

The cast was mostly between 10 and 13 years old, and as with any production featuring children, the histrionic abilities varied considerably. The outstanding performer was Tom Burton as Brundibár, who really inhabited his role as the bully, and whose singing voice sounded more practised and mature than most. Kate Aruman and Jackson Low (the brother-and-sister protagonists) were very accurate in their pitching, and the trio of animals (Miriam Arnold, Tali Greenfield and Danah Gressel) sounded very sweet when singing together. Jaymie Perl, as the Ice Cream Seller, also did well. The choral lullaby which induced the townsfolk to contribute their cash was the only number sung in the original Czech.

The set was minimal, an appropriate reminder of the limited resources available during the ghetto performances. It opened with an ill-hung bedsheet centre-stage, on which silhouettes of the siblings’ bedridden mother were displayed. The children, directed by Sharna Galvin, generally did well, although there was a certain independence in how some of the chorus members performed the communal gestures.

The artlessness of the children’s performance was complemented by a highly professional orchestra, with Deborah de Graaff (on clarinet) and Owen Morris (on trumpet) producing a particularly mellow and pleasing tone. Hans Krása’s score is an appealing mixture of jazz-influenced styles with some folk-based materials, and was ably directed by Joseph Toltz, who conducted southpaw. Maybe as a consequence of this, or maybe so as to fit in the piano in the limited space in front of the stage, the usual positioning of the strings was inverted, so that they were to the right of the conductor. There were nice solos from Fiona Ziegler (on violin) and Sally Whitwell (on piano and piano accordion). As a whole, the performance was a touching tribute to what the human spirit is capable of in the direst of circumstances. Ne obliviscaris.