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CityMusic Cleveland presents charming, potent children's opera born in the Holocaust
Donald Rosenberg, The Plain Dealer, Tuesday, May 01, 2012

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- At the end of the children's opera "Brundibar," the youngsters line up to sing a song of victory over the evil organ grinder who's been pressuring them for the little money they possess.

Hans Krasa's opera "became a symbol of freedom for children," Ela Stein Weissberger told a packed house of students Tuesday morning at John Hay High School, soon after she'd joined the cast onstage in the work's victory song.

Weissberger knows all too well of which she speaks. The 81-year-old Czech-born American sang the role of the Cat in all 55 performances of the "Brundibar" production that provided relief -- and hope -- for residents at the Nazi internment camp Theresienstadt (Terezin) in Czechoslovakia in 1943 and 1944.

Most of the children with whom Weissberger shared the stage were sent to their deaths at the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz during and soon after the run of "Brundibar."

To pay tribute to them, and to make sure the world doesn't forget the horrors of the Holocaust, Weissberger has traveled the world attending hundreds of productions of "Brundibar," singing along with the cast and holding the audience spellbound with her reminiscences of life at Theresienstadt.

She is in Cleveland this week for the first local production of "Brundibar," the culmination of a project about genocide that the chamber orchestra CityMusic Cleveland began presenting in February. CityMusic is offering nine performances of the opera this week at John Hay High for intergenerational audiences.

The opera is a charming and potent 30-minute work with a tune-laden score by Krasa, a prominent Czech composer who died at Auschwitz with other gifted artists the Nazis transported to what they trumpeted as a model ghetto with a flourishing cultural life. It largely served as a holding camp for Jews soon to perish in the gas chambers.

CityMusic's spare, affecting production of "Brundibar" -- designed by Angelina Avelonne (sets and costumes) and Stephen Strawbridge (lighting) -- doesn't shy away from the terror amid the opera's high spirits.

Piercing whistles and images of approaching trains introduce Barney Taxel's projections of Holocaust photos and drawings, including the ominous slogan "Arbeit macht frei" ("Work sets one free"), which adorned entrances to the concentration camps. The teenage Weissberger and her youthful Theresienstadt colleagues stare at you from the screen as the older Weissberger and CityMusic cast perform the victory song.

Stage director Alison Chase, founder of Pilobolus Dance Theater, keeps nimble focus on the brave children who rally their forces to triumph over Brundibar (Czech for bumblebee). In some productions, including the original at Theresienstadt, Brundibar resembles Hitler. CityMusic makes him a thug in leather, bass-baritone William Clarence Marshall, who is aptly menacing.

The narrative follows brother and sister Pepicek and Aninka trying to make money to buy milk for their ailing mother. A trio of wily animals -- sparrow, cat and dog, depicted by youngsters brandishing Robin VanLear and Sawsan Alhaddad's adorable puppets -- assists them, and the community helps thwart Brundibar's efforts to push everyone around.

CityMusic is alternating casts of students from the Cleveland School of the Arts and the Cleveland Orchestra Children's Chorus in Tony Kushner's English version of Adolf Hoffmeister's original Czech libretto.

Along with the imposing Marshall, Tuesday's winning cast included Joshua Delk (Pepicek), Lydia Pfeile (Aninka), Samantha Appeldorn (Ice Cream Man), Danaye Bolden (Baker), Vasia Williams (Milkman), Raven Platts (Sparrow), Joey Foti (Cat) and Shannon Moore (Dog), who projected their characters with confidence and vocal clarity.

Even conductor Ryan McAdams, who led a small band of excellent CityMusic players at stage right, got in on the action, donning a cap and putting a shine on the policeman's lines.

Tuesday's programs began with Max Bruch's "Kol Nidrei," which cellist Keiko Ying and pianist Alicja Basinska played with dark eloquence. The evening performance also brought the full CityMusic ensemble onstage for an incisive and noble account of that mightiest of classical edifices, Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, which was offered before a screen of slowly shifting clouds.