Hard to believe that the men behind Where the Wild Things Are and Angels in America have anything in common. But a shared love of Herman Melville brought them together ten years ago, and now children's-book author Maurice Sendak and playwright Tony Kushner are so tight that Kushner wrote the text for the weighty The Art of Maurice Sendak: 1980 to Present, a massive tome covering Sendak's recent work, including explorations into theatrical design.
The most recent collaboration between the two men is the micro-opera Brundibar, now running at the Berkeley Rep in a whiz-bang production. First they did it as a book, with Kushner adapting the story from a Czech opera written as Hitler was coming to power, and Sendak drawing the pictures, and now it's a gorgeous little chunk of live music, stunning sets, and masses of singing children. It's been paired with another Czech import, Václav Kliment Klicpera and Bohuslav Martinu's Comedy on the Bridge, for two different perspectives on the perils of fascism. But this sugar-coated all-ages show never gets heavy-handed.
The two pieces differ and yet are connected in interesting ways. The set of Comedy is largely monochromatic, while the set of Brundibar is washed in Sendak's trademark pastels. Although the stories were written by different people, they've been tied together here very subtly by having the characters from Comedy show up later in Brundibar.
Comedy on the Bridge follows a clutch of people stuck on a bridge between warring towns, trapped by snarling sentries who refuse to honor their visas. First pretty young Popelka, then her blustering boss, then their respective partners show up, and mayhem ensues amid tangy, staccato singing. It's not what you expect from opera. Neither are the giant, bulbous spinning fish waiting for Popelka's boyfriend Sykos to jump so they can eat him; neither is the tall, skinny professor singing in Latin and puzzling out a riddle about a deer. A drawn-out squabble on the bridge gleefully points up the absurdity of conflict.
The story of Brundibar is equally simple. Two children, Pepicek and Aninku, learn that their mother is sick and needs milk to get better. They go into town hoping to get some, but find that they'll have to sing for money. It doesn't go well at first. The song chosen by Pepicek (Aaron Simon Gross, with an amazing voice for a young man his age) and his sister (the graceful Devynn Pedell) fails to move the streetcorner audience.
Sadder still is the organ-grinder Brundibar, a pompus fellow whose unhappy childhood has made him a bitter, nasty man. Because he was abused by other children, now he must be "the loudest of them all," and nobody else dares to encroach on his patch. "Children, how I hate them; how I wish the bedbugs ate them," he sings. Euan Morton's Brundibar is a porcelain doll gone wrong, pink and white with a shock of black hair, dancing menacingly on his stilts. Three talking animals come to the children's aid, and the bully is defeated ... or is he?
Speaking of talking animals, Geoff Hoyle makes a great dog. Not just his physicalization -- anyone can turn around three times before going to sleep -- but his breathing. It's uncanny, but Hoyle's panting sounds exactly like a dog's.
Sendak's sets and costumes are fantastic. If you've ever wanted to live on Max's island or in the Night Kitchen, this is that dream made real and huge. And neatly tucked under the stage out of sight, Valerie Gebert conducts members of the Berkeley Symphony at perfect volume.
But behind the cute story is a far grimmer one. Brundibar was originally composed by Hans Krása, with a libretto by Adolf Hoffmeister, for a competition organized by the Czech Ministry of Education and Culture in 1938. The opera wasn't performed until 1942, when it saw three performances at the Vinohrady Boys' Orphanage in Prague's Jewish ghetto. It was conducted by the orphanage director's teenage son Rudolph Freudenfeld because Krása and the opera's conductor had been sent to the infamous "model camp" at Terezín; Freudenfeld himself got to conduct only three performances before he too was rounded up. But he hid the score in his suitcase, and brought it along. At Terezín a mixed group of boys and girls performed Brundibar 55 times, including a performance for a gullible Red Cross man being shown how well inmates were treated. The performance was included in the propaganda film The Führer Gives the Jews a City, never mentioning that from Terezín, the child actors were then sent on to the death camps at Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Treblinka.
The contrast between the show's sad history and its upbeat message -- that people banding together can overcome tyranny -- gives it an edgy quality that younger viewers will miss in the candied swirl of giant ice-cream cones, blackbirds, and friendly animals. Which is okay; kids and adults will take away different things from the Rep's first eminently palatable foray into opera.
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