In its fifth year of educational outreach, the Asheville Lyric Opera has produced an extraordinary event in Diana Wortham Theatre to commemorate the millions who perished at the hands of the Nazi regime. The music was solely that of Czech composer Hans Krása, who was caught up in the Nazi dragnet, and transported to Theresienstadt (Terezin) before he was finally exterminated at Auschwitz in 1944. To give the widest range of expression possible to the cultural artifacts surviving these horrific events, two chamber works performed by members of the Opal String Quartet (Amy Lovinger and Ginger Kowal, violins, Kara Poorbaugh, viola, and Franklin Keel, cello) were followed in the program’s first half by dramatic readings of three poems by children likewise confined in the Theresienstadt ghetto, these simultaneously interpreted in dance by Asheville Ballet members Alyssa Belcher and Lyle Laney. For the second half of the program the company staged the children’s opera Brundibár, its cast of 23 drawn from a variety of local home schools and elementary, middle, and high schools. High praise and thanks go not only to Stage Director Kristen Yarborough, Music Director Vance Reese, Conductor Michael Porter (who directed the small orchestra from behind an onstage screen), all who brought this moving tribute to life, but to Asheville Lyric Opera board member Elizabeth Potter Spragins for first bringing the opera to the company’s attention, and to the company’s directors (David Craig Starkey, General and Artistic Director) whose vision enabled over 1,400 area school children to see the production free of charge.
Krása’s Theme and Variations for String Quartet from 1936, composed before his arrest, encompassed a variety of influences. One could hear by turns the light-hearted worlds of cabaret music and jazz as well as learned counterpoint. The quartet’s tone was one of intimacy in lieu of dramatic projection, as though friends were engaged in quiet conversation. The Passacaglia and Fugue for String Trio, composed in Theresienstadt in 1943, literally inhabits another world. The music began with the striking passacaglia theme in the bass, worked at first into poignant statements shared by all the strings, but then moved through a surprising variety of expressive modes (a waltz triste here, some academic counterpoint there, some banal passages worked furiously), all connected only by the thread of its recurring theme. The fugue likewise began as a fugue, but toward the end arrived at a moment of stasis in which a series of melodic statements were repeated over and over in various accent patterns.
Three poems (“The Old House” by František Bass, “I’d Like to Go Alone” by Alena Synková, and “The Butterfly” by Pavel Friedmann) drawn from I Never Saw Another Butterfly, edited by Hana Volavková, were arranged into a clever “reader’s theatre script.” Each poem was read intact, then deconstructed to echo within the lines of the other poems, all culminating in a dramatic cacophony of all six readers reciting their separate lines together. One couldn’t help but be moved by such evocative poetry coupled with the beautiful dancing by the pair of interpreters.
Brundibár was written before Krása’s transportation to Theresienstadt, but it was in the camp that the piece had its longest performance history (55 performances) before the composer’s death. It is a marvelous introduction to the world of opera for any child, as its fairy tale-like plot concerns two siblings, brother Pepiček (Carl Kimbrough) and sister Aninka (Hannah Grady) who try to help their ailing mother by singing for money, only to be foiled by the evil, thieving Brundibár (Austin Kellenberger). The children wander into the woods and meet a Sparrow (Genevieve Wiedeman), Cat (Emily Eliot-Gaines), and Dog (Jessica Savitt) who befriend and guide the pair. Together, they lead the village in driving the bully away and sing a march of rejoicing as the grand finale. The production was extraordinary for so many reasons. The set was designed to look like an attic where children could transform themselves into the world of make-believe. The backdrop was based on children’s artwork created in the camp. Parts of the multi-layered costumes (designed by Jayne Harnett-Hargrove) were pulled out of trunks and put on onstage. The music and staging had been so well rehearsed that the children were totally at ease in their roles and joyfully romped around singing and dancing, just like so many children playacting.
Of course, if this is a lesson in opera, it’s also a lesson in the history of what happened in these camps. While the music is beautiful and the story charming, it’s also music that’s hard to hear, as the cast members of these productions were routinely shipped off for extermination elsewhere. The lesson is brutal, and almost too much to bear.