To watch a putative world premier of a work of art so staggering in its implications about a time and place that conjures nausea and nightmares all behind the facade of children’s fantasy is a heavy load for both performers and audience.
This all happened February 2 at Amarillo College’s Ordway Hall in Amarillo Opera’s production of the “Fireflies of Terezin.”
Terazin, or Theresienstadt, as known by its more ogrish Nazi moniker, was the site of one of the cruelest charades ever staged by mankind.
To Theresienstadt, from 1942 – 1945 were sent the artists and intellectuals of European Jewry. They were coerced to play the parts of perfectly content inhabitants of a model ghetto for non-belligerents, like the Red Cross, to observe.
To complete this monstrous deception, the SS overlords encouraged the performing arts. Hence the famous Verdi’s “Requiem,” termed the “Defiance Requiem” for its prophetic “Dies Irae” which was performed repeatedly for the black uniformed killers who never caught on.
From this hellish millieu came the children’s productions “Brundibar” and the “Fireflies of Terezin.” Amarillo Opera performed the first two years ago with the aid of Ela Stein Weissberger, one of the original cast and one of the one percent of the children who survived.
Among the insights Ela Weissberger provided was the information about “Fireflies,” based on a Jan Karafiat fairy tale, parts of which she was translating from the Czech. She informed “Brundibar” director Linda Hughes that other efforts had taken place to recreate this musical stage play, and she asked Linda to find all the pieces and direct this work.
Sadly Ela passed away during the interim, unable to witness her request coming to fruition.
Linda’s persistent research revealed a former presentation in Denmark, and a collaborative work in progress at Central Michigan University between playwright Dr. Lauren McConnell and composer Jose-Luis Maurtua. It took time and effort but Linda finally gathered a complete script and score.
The musical, if taken at face-value, is a children’s play with a happy ending, intending to delight and entertain.
But the context of a concentration camp makes this an allegory of survival, of bringing light into a benighted world.
Like Picasso’s incandescent bulb illuminating the barbarity of Guernica’s terror-bombing, the message of “Fireflies” is concretized in “Das Einlosung.” The tenet, even allegorically is profound: be true to who and what you are because the dark winter of despair will yield to the brightness of spring.
And even as the children performed this 75+ years ago behind the barbed wire, they knew what would happen to them. Even so, they chose to create, for a short time on stage, an escape into fantasy and a hope for a better world.
We’d like to think that we’ve moved beyond the inhuman insanity of the Holocaust into that better world. However, we’re all too aware of the ubiquitous hate groups that deny the Holocaust and the majority of millennials who live utterly ignorant of the event.
“Never Forget!” are the words that shroud Yad Vashem in Israel and cry from the headless human sculptures of “The Bronze Crowd,” a testimony to those millions lost by Magdalena Abakanowicz at the Nasher Sculptural Center in Dallas.
And “Never Forget!” propelled Amarillo Opera to stage “Fireflies,” an homage to the children of Theresienstadt whose life dreams were cut short by Zyklon B. The Opera honored their lives with dignity and purpose on Feb. 2.
For that effort we thank Producer Mary Jane Johnson who committed to this work, Director Linda Hughes who brought together all the disparate elements, including a young cast, and Dr. Nathaniel Fryml for being a one-person pit orchestra, and the rest of the stage crew.
Most of all we thank the very young actors and actresses who handled the emotional load of their roles with aplomb and maturity.
In art lies the antidote to the political poisons and toxic tyranny that culminated in the camps. That’s why we can proudly but defiantly say, “Keep Amarillo Artsy!”