Teryl L. Dobbs grapples with performances of Brundibár, past and present
By Allison Bloom
The plot of Hans Krása’s operetta Brundibár should be familiar to readers of fairy tales: two children, in an effort to help their sick mother, sing at the market to earn money. They’re chased away by the evil organ grinder, Brundibár, but eventually overthrow him with the help of friendly animals.
Although composed for a Czech state competition in 1938, the operetta became indelibly associated with the Holocaust when the score was smuggled into the Theresienstadt concentration camp, and a production was mounted that lasted for more than 55 performances. Sung and acted by children, Brundibár was held as an example of the cultural programming offered to Jews at the Terezín “show camp” during the 1944 International Red Cross visit and the subsequent propaganda film, The Führer Gives the Jews a City.
Associate Professor of Music Education and Jewish Studies affiliate Teryl L. Dobbs recently returned from a sabbatical trip to Prague and Terezín (the Czech name of the garrison town where the Theresienstadt camp was located), where she studied the history of the operetta. What led Dobbs to focus on a work for children? The answer lies not only in its history, but also in what she calls the “contemporary ideological deployment” of the operetta by music teachers and opera companies.
Though Brundibár provided performers and audience members an important musical respite after brutal 16-hour days of hard labor, the operetta was produced under considerable duress. Dobbs has, for instance, compared cast lists with lists of children who were transported to death camps from Theresienstadt, and she found that the operetta cast had to be continually renewed with new auditions as other cast members were deported.
“Studying Brundibár is, in a way, studying the ‘present absence’ of people who are no longer with us,” Dobbs says. “When we hear the operetta, we hear the voices of children who were silenced.”
In addition to studying musical scores and documentation in the archives of the Terezín memorial and the Jewish Museum in Prague, Dobbs interviewed surviving cast members about their experiences of Brundibár. These cast members emphasized the importance of clandestine education and community involvement in Theresienstadt, and recalled that performing in the operetta gave them an emotional attachment to music making that helped them survive. Speaking with these survivors, Dobbs notes, reaffirmed her belief that “the act of education is a future-oriented endeavor. We teach the arts because they are a statement of our humanity.”
Dobbs is not only interested in the operetta’s history; she also raises questions about the ideological framework that surrounds current productions. Brundibár is often presented as an opportunity to learn about the Holocaust in school music programs and children’s opera workshops, and is also sometimes presented as a morality play that purports to teach students about bullying and tolerance. (A modern production in three parts can be viewed here, here, and here.)
Dobbs finds, however, that many teachers lack sufficient historical context to teach the operetta, which ends up obscuring the work’s problematic history. She calls instead for a pedagogical perspective that values questioning, mindful teaching, and empathic attunement to what Deborah Britzman has termed “difficult knowledge:” the internment, forced labor, corruption, propaganda, and genocide that Brundibár represents. For Dobbs, paying attention to the “present absence” inherent in Brundibár‘s history is far more important than using it as music-educational shorthand for the Holocaust. Her approach reminds us that music, even when produced under conditions of extreme stress, can be a form of spiritual resistance.
Photo: Yad Vashem C2977/174