A Study Guide for Brundibár
Music by Hans Krsása
Original libretto by Adolf Hoffmeister
English translation by Tony Kushner
Manitoba Chamber Orchestra
and the Pembina Trails Voices Anne Manson, Conductor
Ruth Wiwchar, Director of the Pembina Trails Voices
Donna Fletcher, Director
Performances March 12, 2013:
Westminster Church 1:15 pm / school matinee
with introduction and Q&A session to follow
7:30 pm / evening concert
- Funding for this project has been provided by
- Manitoba Arts Council Canada Council for the Arts
- Winnipeg Arts Council
- The Winnipeg Foundation
- The Jewish Foundation of Manitoba
- Manitoba Opera
The purpose of this guide
We hope this guide will help you encourage your students’ understanding and appreciation of this performance of Brundibár, and its relationship to world history. Brundibár gives us an opportunity to introduce the topics of the Holocaust, racial discrimination, and the treatment of Jewish people in the Nazi concentration town of Terezin during World War II. Please be sure to examine any website content for age appropriateness prior to recommending to your students. This guide will provide you with background material on the composer, Terezin (or Theresienstadt), a synopsis of the story, and activities that can be incorporated into your curriculum.
Table of contents
- Meet the composer
- Hans Krsása
- About Terezin, Czechoslovakia
- About Brundibár
- Before going to Brundibár
- Connect and motivate
- Audience Etiquette
- During the performance
- After attending Brundibár
- Write something original
- Curricular connections
- Aesthetics and art criticism
- English, reading and writing
- Science Create, present, perform
Meet the Composer: Hans Krsása
Hans Krsása was born on November 30, 1899 in Prague to a Czech father, who was a lawyer, and a Jewish German mother. He studied both the piano and the violin as a child, and went on to study composition at the German Music Academy in Prague. After graduating, he became a vocal coach at the Neues Deutsches Theater (New German Theatre), where he met the composer and conductor, Alexander Zemlinsky, who had a major impact on Krsása’s career.
In 1942, he was transported to the Nazi concentration town of Terezin, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech republic). While he was interned in the ghetto, Krsása was at his most productive, producing a number of chamber works. Due to the circumstances, some of these have not survived.
Along with fellow composers Viktor Ullmann, Pavel Haas and Gideon Klein, Krsása was sent to Auschwitz and, being considered too old to work and also a possible threat to order, was killed in October 1944. He was not yet 45 years old.
For more information on Hans Krsása, visit the following websites:
For information on children and the Holocaust, visit the following site:
|Year||Hans Krsása||World events|
|1899||Born on November 30 in Prague||May 10, Fred Astaire born
July 21, Ernest Hemingway born
|1921||Graduates from the German Music Academy in Prague||July 29, Hitler becomes leader of the Nazi party|
|1933||Premier of Krsásas opera, Betrothal in a Dream||January 30, Hitler named Chancellor of Germany
April 1, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels orders boycott of Jewish stores, cafes, restaurants, banks and services
|1938||Krsásas composes Brundibár for a government competition, but the competition is later cancelled due to political developments||March 12, Germany annexes Austria
November 9 & 10, Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass
|1939||Nazis seize control of Czechoslovakia|
|1941||Krsása is deported to Terezin
November 27, Brundibár premiers at a Prague orphanage
|Inhabitants of Terezin are relocated so the town can be made ito a ghetto for Jewish people|
|1943||September 23, Brundibár performed for first time in Terezin||January 18, Warsaw Ghetto Uprising begins|
|1944||June 23, Red Cross visit Terezin
October 16, Krsása is deported to Auschwitz and is immediately sent to the gas chamber
|June 6, Battle of Normandy begins
October 30, Anne Frank is deported from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp
About Terezin, Czech Republic
In the late 18th century, Terezin was founded as a garrison town during the reign of Emperor Joseph II and named after his mother, Empress Maria Theresa. However, in 1941, the ‘Ghetto Theresienstadt’ was established and between the years of 1941 and 1945 the Nazis transferred about 140,000 Jewish people to the town. At its largest, there were approximately 55,000 people concentrated in Terezin, a town that before the war had housed about 5,000 residents.
Children deported to Terezin were not kept with their families, but were watched over by counselors. Education was strictly forbidden, but the counselors found ways around this rule by telling stories, singing songs, and acting out plays to covertly teach history, religion, reading, writing and mathematics. One of the most tragic statistics is that of the 10,000 children who made their way through Terezin, only a tiny percentage survived. Some place the figure at 100, others at 1,000, but either way it is horrifically small.
For more information on Terezin, visit the following websites:
About BrundibárBrundibár is a half-hour opera written to be performed by and for children. Composed by Hans Krsása in 1938, with lyrics by Adolf Hoffmeister (translated by Tony Kushner in 2003), as an entry for a children’s opera competition, it received its premiere in German- occupied Prague, performed by children at the Jewish orphanage in Belgicka Street. Brundibár had one additional performance before the mass transports of Bohemian and Moravian Jews to Terezin began in 1942. In July 1943, the score of Brundibár was smuggled into camp, where it was re-orchestrated by Krasa for the various instrumentalists who were resident in the camp at that time, and the premiere of the Terezin version took place on 23 September 1943 in the hall of the Magdeburg barracks. Realizing the propagandistic potential of this enormously popular artistic endeavour, the Nazis arranged a special new staging of Brundibár for the propaganda film Theresienstadt — eine Dokumentarfilm aus en judische Siedlungsgebiet (directed by Kurt Gerron), and the same production was performed for the inspection of Terezin by the International Red Cross in September 1944. This would be the last of the fifty-five performances in the Terezin Ghetto; two weeks later, transportation of artists began to Auschwitz and other destinations East, silencing this, the most popular theatrical production in Terezin.
The camp audience quickly grasped that the simple plot of Brundibár represented all that the Nazi regime stood for. When the children sang their final song of victory over the cruel Brundibár, there was no doubt about the evil he personified; this was the very evil that caused the young performers of the opera to be deported to Auschwitz and the gas chambers. Survivors report that people would sing the victory march throughout the streets of Terezin, raising their hopes that they, too, might find victory over a tyrant.
The story and music are accessible enough for a young audience, but layered with historical references, making the opera a poignant experience for an adult audience as well.
For more information about Brundibár visit:
Cast of Characters and the Pembina Trails choirs to which they belong
- a young boy: Mitch Heron — PTV Men
- his sister: Stephanie Bell — Chorale
- the organ grinder: John Anderson — PTV Men
- Ice cream seller
- Alexandra Skwarchuk — Chorale
- David Newell — PTV Boys
- Matthew Woelk — PTV Boys
- Rachel Woelk — Cantemus
- Jane Petroff — Cantemus
- Tessa Jenkyns — Cantemus
- Ella Wiebe — Chorale Chorus of young people from the neighbourhood
Aninka and Pepicek, two little children, have a sick mother. The doctor has prescribed milk for her health, and they go seeking milk in the town marketplace, but they have no money with which to purchase it. Three traders hawk their wares: an ice-cream man, a baker and a milkman. The children engage the milkman in a song, but he tells them that they need money for milk. Suddenly, the children spot the organ-grinder, Brundibár, playing on the street corner. Seeing his success, they decide to busk as well (and proceed to sing a song about geese), much to the annoyance of the townsfolk and Brundibár, who chase them away. Three animals — a sparrow, cat and dog — come to their help, and together they recruit the other children of the neighbourhood in their plan. Night falls, the dawn comes, the children and animals begin morning exercises and the townsfolk get ready for the day. The plan goes ahead: the animals and children drown out Brundibár; they then join in a beautiful lullaby. The townsfolk are very moved and give Aninka and Pepicek money. Suddenly, Brundibár sneaks in and steals their takings. All the children and animals give chase and recover the money. The opera concludes with a victory march sung about defeating the evil organ-grinder.
Before attending the concert
Connect and motivate
- What do you know about the story of Brundibár? What do you think is the point of the story?
- What is a tyrant? Do you know any tyrants?
- What do you think the opera will be like?
- Is it all right to laugh? Cry?
- Is it all right to applaud? When?
Read the background information
Discuss life in Europe during the Second World War
- How did life differ from the times in which we now live?
- How do you think the times may have inspired the story of the opera?
During the performance
What do you see? Notice the following:
- Sets and props
- How does each scene begin?
- What arias or other songs are sung?
- How does the music change the mood?
- What problems arise in the opera?
- How are the problems solved?
After the performance
React to the experience
Write or talk about the following
- Did you like the opera? Why or why not?
- What did you like the best or least?
- What character(s) did you like the best or least?
Retell the story
Write something original
- Write a song for one of the characters in the opera
- Write a song for a fairytale character
- Write a story, song, poem or skit with ideas from the opera, such as
- helping friends
- talking animals
- your mother
Find out more about one of the following
- Terezin, Czech Republic
- Hans Krasa
- Surviving cast members, such as Ella Weissberger — the original Cat
Aesthetics and art criticism
- After reviewing the Study Guide and attending the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra’s production of Brundibár, ask students to write a review of the production, noting how the music directly affects the emotional impact for the listener.
English, reading and writing
- After seeing the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra’s production of Brundibár, ask students to write a journal entry or review of the show as a reflection.
- Write a sequel to Brundibár about what happens to the characters or life in the town 5 years after the action in opera.
- Using persuasive writing styles, create a new ending for the opera, using known character information to produce absolute change within one or more of the characters.
- Ask the students to consider whether there are other stories that remind them of Brundibár. Ask the students to choose a fairytale and write an opera libretto. Remind them that they may have to streamline and/or simplify the story. It takes longer to sing something than to say it. The libretto will consist almost entirely of dialogue. After they have written the libretto, have them reflect on what they had to do to take a written story and make it work as a dramatic or musical one. They can use poetry or not, as they wish.
The voice is a combination of a wind instrument and a string instrument — air passing through the vocal cords creates a vacuum, pulling the vocal cords closed, The cords then vibrate together and create sound. Pitch is determined by the tension of the vocal cords, just like a violin or guitar. You can demonstrate this with a rubber band: wrap a rubber band around your fingers. Pluck it a few times. Can you see and feel the vibrations? The harder you pluck the rubber band, the more it will vibrate, creating a louder sound. If you stretch the rubber band, making it longer and thinner, what do you hear? (It will be a higher pitch.) Have your students place their hands on their throats while speaking or singing at different pitches so they can feel the vibrations in their throats and chests. Explore sound waves.
Create, present, perform
- Obtain copies of the translation of the libretto for Brundibár. Have students read the parts in a dramatic reading, infusing as much feeling and power into the words as possible. The language may be awkward or embarrassing. Ask them to translate the libretto into their own way of speaking and perform that way. Then return to the original libretto. How does their perception of the language change — or not? Do they think that music can affect how the lines sound?
- Have students work in groups to write their own ‘operas’ using popular songs, stringing them together with dialogue. These could be performed for the class.