“To have the opportunity to come up here and to be in this opera is really a rare treat, because oftentimes in Washington County we don’t get as much in the fine arts,” said Noah Carver, a Jonesport/Beals high school student before the final performance of Brundibár, a joint production of PBSO’s Music for Children Program and Downeast Community Theatre, which concluded a series of 10 shows for students from 20 Washington County schools on October 24. The opera, written in 1938, featured an exuberant cast of 28 students aged 8 to 16 years and was performed for 1,500 area children. In a question-and-answer session following the performance, Noah urged students in the audience to get involved: “Definitely! If you want to get into the arts and be a part of a show like this—audition, do it, it’s awesome, you’ll love it!”
Noah plays the sparrow in the opera, a powerful character who inspires protagonists Pepicek and Aninku and their young allies to bravely face the bully, Brundibár, by working together. Noah’s own strength in the face of adversity is one of the many success stories of the production. “I’m totally blind. I cannot see at all,” said Noah. His participation in the production was made possible with the help of Sydney Anderson, a peer from Elm Street Elementary who plays the cat. Noah and Sydney, who have sung together in the Washington County Children’s Chorus, worked out a system: “We figured out how to communicate where I should be on stage, when the conductor is giving the singers cues to come on or hold a note or cut off,” said Noah. “We’re all a big team, onstage and offstage.”
Other team members are legion, and include parents who put in the miles driving children to rehearsals in Eastport and Machias over the five-month preparation period, and in some cases got involved in the production. “I drove three other kids every day,” said Mindy Dean, mother of ‘Ice Cream Man’ Jonah Dean from Marshfield. Mindy became involved with the extensive period hairstyling tasks of the show, including studying ‘victory roll’ technique via YouTube videos. “There were other Moms who helped with hair and makeup on various days—Monique Carver, Lisa Campbell, Britannia Balyint were some—but I don’t remember everyone. There were grandmothers helping as well!”
Costumers Jessica Brissette and Debbie Staggs labored long over accuracy in the detailed costumes, all of which were either 40’s replicas or actual vintage pieces from the era. Many of the pieces were loaned by other organizations such as The Grand in Ellsworth and the Whiting Village School, but the leads’ costumes were made specially for the production out of a fabric similar to what the inmates were required to wear as uniforms in the concentration camps.
Conceived three years ago by Gregory Biss, Sarah Dalton-Philips and Helen Swallow, the Brundibár project has been a long-term labor of love for all involved. Biss served as conductor and musical director for the production; Dalton-Phillips directed and memorably conducted the question-and-answer sessions following each school performance. The team pulled in Chris Grannis to create the props and as stage manager and Ken Varian ran sound. In addition, myriad volunteers lent support to the project.
Swallow, who produced the show alongside fellow PBSO member June Gregory, enthused about the many triumphs of the production, including performers transcending physical disability, learning difficulty, and stage fright, including a particularly spectacular case for one of the youngest performers—Addi Landrum, a homeschooled student from East Machias. 8-year-old Addi’s one ‘line’ (to state her name and role at the end of the show) initially gave her so much trouble that she’d sneak offstage to avoid the moment. By the end of the run, Addi could announce herself clearly and with confidence. Swallow asked her what had changed. “If you do it once, it’s like you get used to it,” said Addi.
Addi is daughter of the production’s Music Coach, Eustacia Landrum, who worked with the chorus and leads on the songs; Landrum previously served as a music teacher at Elm Street Elementary school and now has changed her path to homeschool her three children. “For us this is just another unit of school that we’re doing,” said Eustacia, and noted that nearly half of the children in the production are homeschooled. The perk for the homeschooling families was that they didn’t have to negotiate with schools to arrange their children’s absence during the 8 school day performances.
Hannah Maker, who played Brundibár, commented on balancing her school work at Washington Academy with the show: “You have to be careful to find out what you are missing and keep up with it.” Hannah, who from the first expressed interest in portraying the bully, noted that she’s enjoyed “acting horrible and loud and rude” since she’s normally “a nice person.”
The show ends with a triumphant chorus, “Tyrants come along/ but just you wait and see/ they topple one-two-three/ our friends make us strong!” This rallying cry was clearly heartfelt; the group of children exclaimed many times that a favorite aspect of the being involved with the production was making so many new friends. Meanwhile, their awareness of the opera’s history deepened their experience. “The people who were taken prisoner found a way to get through it with the arts,” said Sydney. “It catches my heart because the arts mean so much to me and get me through things.”
“The storyline of two children in a bad spot, and the backstory of the opera being staged by children in a concentration camp combine,” said Swallow, “to make strong the message of community, kindness, courage and the strength and joy that music brings to life everywhere.” Swallow explained numerous goals that informed her choice of this production for the students of Washington County, such as exposing attendees to diversity, including culture, geography, language, dress and music, and educating about the Holocaust. In addition, all of the Music for Children programs put forward by the PBSO aim to quality musical experiences to children in our area, and in this case the choice of an opera, and in particular such an apt rarity as a children’s opera, was made in favor of the emphasis on singing, acting, creative storytelling and scene design. “The many shows … the hours of rehearsal … the enormous work that Gregory Biss did leading the music … the 1,500 kids who saw the show … We, the whole crew, are very proud and very happy.”
During World War II, Brundibár was performed 55 times at Terezin concentration camp by an all-child cast, accompanied by musicians playing instruments they had been able to smuggle into the camp. As noted in the Teachers’ Resource Manual written by Sue Andraeas and distributed to the 20 schools who attended the performances: “To know that most of the original children performers died from starvation or in gas chambers, or that their beloved director was moved to Auschwitz where he died, is more than many of our young students could comprehend or bear. But we need to begin somewhere. History that is ignored tends to repeat itself.”
The resource guide goes on to emphasize the positive outlook that’s embraced by the opera’s storyline: that “with courage and cooperation, we can face unbeatable ‘bad guys’ with courage and dignity” and specifically that collaboration is the key. “Don’t give up. Help others when you can. Allow others to help you. We can accomplish more than we think we can.”
Those inspired and interested in becoming involved with future projects of the Music for Children program should email Helen Swallow at firstname.lastname@example.org. Brundibár was supported by generous grants from The Maine Community Foundation (including the Bary Lyon Small Fund), The Maine Arts Commission, and The Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation. For more information please visit the Passamaquoddy Bay Symphony Orchestra page at eastportartscenter.org.