'Brundibar' children's opera a pet project of Maurice Sendak

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Considering the buzz for Maurice Sendak these days, it might be surprising to find that he considered a "bumblebee" to be a greater achievement than his heralded monsters of "Where the Wild Things Are," now a major motion picture.

But it is Sendak's set designs and costumes for the one-act children's opera "Brundibar (Bumblebee)" by Czech composer Hans Krasa that the famed illustrator and author called "my crowning achievement."

"It is charming -- vintage Sendak," says Jonathan Eaton of the sets Sendak created.

Eaton's Opera Theater of Pittsburgh will produce Krasa's uplifting story of children overcoming a bully with Sendak's trappings. "If you loved 'Where the Wild Things Are,' you can come and see the real thing live."

Opera Theater of Pittsburgh 'Brundibar'
  • When: 7:30 p.m. Friday; 6 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
  • Where: CAPA Theater, 111 Ninth St., Downtown.
  • Tickets: $15-$25. 412-456-6666; www.operatheaterpittsburgh.org.

So much did Sendak value the "Brundibar" project for the Chicago Opera Theater in 2003 that he also worked with its librettist Tony Kushner on a children's book version of the opera. The School Library Journal reviewed it this way:

"This is an ambitious picture book that succeeds both as a simple children's story and as a compelling statement against tyranny."

Sound familiar? Well, the trouble that plagues the protagonists of "Brundibar" has the same "coming-of-age" quality of "Where the Wild Things Are." And on the surface, it's easy to see why the man acclaimed for revealing the complexities bubbling up in childhood would be attracted to the opera.

That is until you discover the tale's horrifying context. Written in the early 1940s, "Brundibar" received its first real performance not in Prague or Vienna, but in Theresienstadt, that vile camp and "model ghetto" for orphaned Jews who would later be shipped to their deaths in Auschwitz.

"Sendak's family background is Jewish. He and his family were not involved in the Holocaust, but his extended family was," Eaton says. "His works are about shining a light in the darkness, and he loved this opera. It mattered a lot to him."

Opera Theater's all-youth production casts students from Pittsburgh CAPA, Downtown, and has the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra in the pit. It appears as part of the Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project of the Holocaust Center of the United Jewish Federation and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

"Brundibar" follows a brother and sister in a grim predicament. Their mother is sick and famished. They must buy her milk but have no money. Yet every time they busk for a few coins -- singing a folk song -- the mean organ-grinder Brundibar drowns them out. Eventually, the siblings enlist children and animals from the town and overcome him.

"The story is how to deal with a bully -- the children gather in solidarity -- and there are clear thematic connections to the world it was in," Eaton says. "And it is through the power of music that they change the world. This is warm, luscious, Romantic music with Czech folk music and a little jazz. It is written for young people to enjoy. In no way is it high brow."

"Brundibar" was not Sendak's first foray onto the opera stage. He collaborated with composer Oliver Knussen for two operas, "Where the Wild Things Are" and "Higglety Pigglety Pop!" in the mid-1980s at Glyndebourne Festival Opera.

By the time Sendak got to "Brundibar," he had a strong sense of stagecraft, and how to push the envelope. In his designs, reality seeps into the production. Some of the townspeople wear Stars of David on their sleeves a la Nazi Germany, and Brundibar bears a resemblance to Hitler.

But Eaton says young children needn't know the full context of the opera.

"You could bring your young family to have a delightful Sendak experience, or bring your older family with a knowledge of the Holocaust and have a poignant, delightful experience."

Andrew Druckenbrod blogs at Classical Musings on post-gazette.com/music and Listen-up on PG+. adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com .


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