Grace Bydalek and Aubrey Fleming are about halfway through the eleven performances of the children’s opera Brundibár. They share the lead role of Aninku, a young girl trying to care for a sick mother along with her brother Pepíček. Double cast due to the number of performances, when not Aninku, Grace’s has the alternate role of the Dog, while Aubrey plays the Sparrow. The Dog, Sparrow and a Cat help Aninku and Pepíček defeat the town bully, Brundibár.
If their names sound familiar, it’s because they both are veterans of numerous productions on the Opera Omaha, The Rose, and Omaha Community Playhouse circuit in addition to both have done voice work for the “Strawberry Shortcake” DVD series. During Opera Omaha’s 50th Anniversary season, they worked together in another children’s opera, All The King’s Men.
Grace and Aubrey have often auditions for the same roles, but experiences like Brundibár have allowed the two to form a true friendship. Don’t miss out on seeing these two amazing young artists in action at 6:30 pm on Saturday, November 7 at The Rose Theater.
I did not know the opera before but discovering it in this production has been a delight. As I hear the orchestra play its complex melodies and then hear the children sing so simply and lyrically, I am amazed that such an intricate composition can be so simple and straight-forward. And the tunes stay with me – I can’t get some of them out of my head. Though thoroughly Eastern European (I keep hearing Janacek in the way the music twists and turns), I am reminded of the final children’s chorus from Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Both Krása, the Brundibár composer, and Britten use a haunting melody in their final lullabies. The result is a very gentle, soothing and comforting effect. I can see how this brief opera would have been a comfort to the children in the concentration camp where it was performed.
It is also a powerful and accessible story. Two children just want to care for their sick Mom while their friends, both human and animal, come to their aid. In the process, they defeat the oppressive and unkind organ grinder, Brundibár. You can see the evil in Brundibár but I don’t think it is scary. This story comes from such a tragic time but its purpose is to uplift and provide hope. I feel that very powerfully. And that feeling comes from the cast of children, all of whom are so committed, energetic (as kids will be), and full of the zeal that we expect from young people.
It is very gratifying to be the only adult in this cast. The children are so supportive of me and each other. I have spoken at several schools and I am so pleased at the energy and interest the cast kids and their school friends have shown about this show, about music, and about being part of something special. Because this experience is very unique, I am thrilled to be a part of it.
Tomorrow we begin the student performances of Brundibár. The Rose is the absolutely perfect stage and best theater in Omaha for us to do Brundibár. Being part of the group that organized this excellent project, we were thrilled when Julie and James at Omaha’s Theater Company for Young People found these great dates for our production. We are all very grateful for the help and support of the theater.
Brundibár is a project that I hoped the Omaha community would experience. Going back to the late 90’s, I thought it would be a great thing for Opera Omaha to do at the Rose Theater. Our upcoming shows, 11 in all, are just a fantastic thing! Not easy to say how many people and organizations have helped make this happen.
I would start by mentioning the brainstorming and activism of Eunie and Debbie Denenberg and Fred Simon (they call him Freddy, but I don’t dare). Through their efforts the Institute for Holocaust Education and the very resourceful Beth Seldin Dotan began to consider a run of performances of this opera for middle school audiences. The opera is of itself a marvelous children’s fable about the importance of friends when dealing with great trouble. The trouble is Brundibár, the organ grinder, who monopolizes the performance of music in a small town. Sounds innocent, but the tactics of well organized bullies in a fable is intended to bring to mind governmental dictators. The history of Brundibár at Terezín in Czechoslovakia where thousands of Jews were held and eventually sent to Auschwitz during the Holocaust makes it impossible to not think of the Nazis and of Hitler when considering the plot of the opera.
I should mention, that last year, the Omaha Conservatory under the direction of Ruth Meints and Cindy Sloan, did a production of Brundibár using young instrumentalists as the cast. They did a nice performance at the JCC. As far as I know, it was the first time it was performed in Omaha.
One of the many good things that happened on the way to our performances this week was the joining of Opera Omaha’s new General Director, John Wehrle to the team. Through then Board President Kim Simon and other communicators, John heard about our idea and embraced it. We never could have done this kind of show without the skill and talent of Opera Omaha’s excellent staff: Mark, Brad, Blythe, Tara, Jen, Sarah, Joe, J., Kelly, Maggie, and Tom,… forgive me if I’m forgetting someone.
Beth along with Eunie and Debbie made contact with Ela Weissberger over a year ago and invited her to be a part of these presentations to Omaha Middle Schools. Ela is a remarkable woman who originally played the role of the Cat in Terezín. She has been present at many productions of Brundibár, adding her perspective to the experience for many who have just seen the opera. We are so fortunate that she will speak with our audiences about her experience of the Holocaust, Terezín, her family, her fellow cast members, etc. At the end of every presentation, the company will perform an encore of the Victory March with Ela and the entire cast.
Up high on the list of good things, also the marvelous audition turnout we had in the spring when many of our cast members were selected. They’ve been a fabulous group to work with.
Our orchestra was put together by J. Gawf who keeps on getting better in everything he does for opera in Omaha. We have an orchestra of 16 players, nine professionals and eight young players who study violin with Anne Nagosky. Anne is our concertmaster and we couldn’t be luckier to have some of her many students playing with us.
Karen Spurck and her choir from Morton Middle School heard about the production and joined us in early September. They’ve added so much to the production and have been great to work with. We are grateful to Karen!
David Ward a splendid singer and actor from the national ranks of opera professionals is taking the role of Brundibár and bringing great humor and theatrical flair to it.
We were also amazed that the National Humanities Conference was coming to Omaha exactly the week of Brundibár. This subject and project is a perfect match for that group of national leaders in the humanities. We hope many will be present at our final show.
Finally, our stage director Helena Binder began shaping the production and the staging last week. Her energy, passion, spark and playfulness are perfect for this show! A former dancer, she’s demonstrates the movements of the cat, the dog and the sparrow particularly well. All the performers and our whole show are in great hands.
Last night was the final dress rehearsal for Pagliacci – we were able to run the acts without stopping for the most part. While we have gradually moved to running scenes and then bigger chunks of the piece – transition moments, entrances & exits often require adjustment from the work we did in the rehearsal room and our initial stage/piano rehearsals. Final dress is also one final chance to resolve the lighting cues. Ben Pearcy, our lighting designer, has focused the stage lighting with a variety of colors to both light the artists (especially their faces) and to shift the mood to mirror the emotional journey of the score. We made a number of notes at the last rehearsal, and now we need to review our work, edit our choices and see it again. We work a great deal balancing color temperature – something too bright and the life gets washed out of the picture, but something too dark or too saturated, and details are obscured. Some of the gentle gel color in the lights turned the actors’ skin and costumes the same color as some of the scenery, so that’s at the top of our list to remedy. It involves electricians on ladders crawling out to lights hung way overhead or on the balcony rail – often a time-consuming process – but it’s something you can’t really know until you put the whole picture together. Ben directs our eyes to the climax of the story in each scene – and it’s often amazing to see a set under “work-light” (normal overhead lights) and see it spring to life when the stage lights are turned on it (or in many cases, artfully turned off).
Monday was our first stage/orchestra which went quite well. But there are always those “ensemble” places between stage and orchestra that can be a challenge. A chorus (and cast) used to hearing the percussive piano has to adapt to the smoother lines of woodwinds and string instruments. Verismo opera is notorious for shifting beats and taking moments “out of time” – part of the evolution of the art form rearranging style and structure to engage the audience. Richard Buckley is a master of this style of music – so we look to him to guide our adjustments from the last rehearsal that will make a difference tonight.
At the end of rehearsal we went through our last set of notes – looking for those moments that we can improve: pointing up details to lend focus, encouraging strong moments to be a tad stronger to read to the back of the auditorium, and confirming cues with our stage manager. She’s the unsung hero of any production – the coordinator / den mother/ anticipator of problems / time keeper in all our rehearsals. You won’t see her take a bow onstage, but when the curtain goes up or the lanterns light up, she’s the one in control of all the elements and synchronizing them with the music. Opera is a great process – melding together so many talents, so many arts – and is at it’s best in a brilliant natural acoustic where the collective energy of so many becomes united behind one idea – the composer’s music. Now we look forward to adding the final element: the audience !
The last day before the final dress. This has been a fast process having started rehearsals only one week ago. All the soloists are excellent and have come very prepared. Garnett has directed a very detailed vivid production and all on stage are energized. This is the first time I have worked with the Omaha Symphony. They are being very responsive and cooperative, and I look forward to making music with them in mode. Pagliacci is always a challenge due to its musical language and huge emotional palette, but, always extremely rewarding.
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