23 January 2019

Why Rebecca Comerford
is telling the story of a
death camp outside Prague

Rebecca Comerford is telling the story of Terezín, a concentration camp north of Prague (Photo by Mariana Schulze)

Patrick Comerford

Terezín or Theresienstadt, north of Prague, was both a concentration camp and a ghetto in the German-occupied Czech lands during World War II. It was established in 1941 as both a waystation to the extermination camps, and a ‘retirement settlement’ for elderly and prominent Jews to mislead their communities about the Holocaust.

Terezín is about 70 km north of Prague, which I am visiting this week, and I was interested to read that Rebecca Comerford, a professional singer and actor, has been involved in bringing the story of Terezín to American audiences, including synagogues, in a deliberate decision taken in the light of the present political climate.

Rebecca Comerford is a mezzo soprano and the founder of Ojai Youth Opera Company. She has sung both nationally and internationally as an opera soloist with some of the world’s finest houses, under the baton of Metropolitan Opera conductor Steven Crawford in Rigoletto at Carneigie Hall, the New York City Opera VOX series, the National Chorale at Lincoln Center, Spleto Opera in Italy, Neue Oper Wien in Vienna, and the Granada Festival for Spanish Song in Spain.

Her notable roles include Carmen (Carmen), Siebel (Faust), Tisbe (La Cenerentola), Meg (Little Women), Lucretia (The Rape of Lucretia) and Lucy Brown in the Off Broadway Revival of The Threepenny Opera. She holds a master’s degree in music from Manhattan School of Music in New York and a bachelor’s degree in voice from Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.

Recently, Rebecca and the Ojai Youth Opera Company were involved in reviving Brundibár, a resistance opera written and performed by Jews in the Nazi concentration camp at Terezín, and she has taken the story of Brundibár to Etz Chaim synagogue in Biddeford, Maine.

Brundibár was written by the composers Hans Krása and Adolf Hoffmeister in 1938. It was originally composed by Krása for the Children’s Orphanage of Prague, using Hoffmeister’s libreto.

The opera tells the story of a brother and sister who stand up to a bully in order to afford milk to save their sick mother. It was meant to teach the children at the orphanage about how to deal with a bully, and how to remain positive in difficult situations.

The 1941 debut took place secret because to the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. When European Jews were rounded up for deportation, Hans Krása was deported to the concentration camp in Theresienstadt, which the Nazis renamed Terezín.

Krása rewrote the opera for the children in the camp. They rehearsed in secret until the Nazis discovered them. Instead of being punished, the Nazis saw Krása’s opera as a way to show the world that they were treating their prisoners fairly, allowing them to practice the arts.

The antagonist, an organ grinder who sang loudly on the street in order to make money and drown out all the townspeople’s voices, was symbolic of Hitler’s tyrannical reign. The Nazis failed to make this connection, and so the resistance opera continued to be performed under their noses.

Brundibár was performed 55 times in the camp for inspectors from organisations including the Red Cross. Many of the opera’s performers were deported from Terezín to Auschwitz-Buchenwald, where most of the performers died. When performers were deported, they were replaced by other prisoners at Terezín.

Only 20 of the 400 performers of Brundibár survived to see liberation. ‘They were making art up until the very end,’ says Rebecca Comerford.

Hoffmeister’s final verse was: ‘Who likes mummy and daddy and our native home is our friend and can play with us.’ For the performance in Terezín, Erik A Saudek changed this ending to: ‘Who likes the law, stands by it and is not afraid of anything …’ This final verse became something of an anthem in Terezín. Actors and viewers alike knew very well the meaning of these words in combination with the innocent children’s fight with evil Brundibár.

At the end of Brundibár, the chorus sings: ‘We’ve won a victory over the tyrant mean. Sound trumpets, beat your drum, and show us your esteem. We’ve won a victory because we were not fearful, because we were not tearful. Because we marched along singing our happy song, bright joyful and cheerful.’

Brundibár was not performed outside Theresienstadt until 1986, when Radio Prague recorded its international debut. The Lyric Opera of Kansas City performed a production in 2005.

Rebecca spoke recently in Etz Chaim synagogue in Biddeford, Maine, about her company’s revival of Brundibár for American audiences. She recalled how she and the board of directors of the Ojai Youth Opera chose Brundibár as part of their programme for the 2017 season because of ‘the current political climate, and the rise of fascism across the globe, and the pervasive rise of intolerance, not just nationally, but on a macro level, too.’

She says there is an element of education to the show too. She recalls how the company had to decide what they were going to teach their performers about how to promote tolerance and inclusion, and about how to deal with bullies and negativity.

‘We decided that this would be really timely and relevant in terms of our mission, and said let’s do this outreach component, too. We’ll really discuss the messages. How do we deal with a bully? What does that mean to our children? And why do they need to know this story, so history doesn’t repeat itself again?’ Rebecca Comerford said.

Rebecca Comerford also performed Wiegenleid by Gideon Klein, a Czech composer who was active in the camp’s underground cultural life in Terezín. Klein wrote the lullaby shortly before he was deported to Auschwitz-Buchenwald, where he was murdered.

‘It’s our obligation as a human family to share the story,’ Rebecca told her audience in Etz Chaim.

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