When the Theresienstadt Ghetto was established in 1941, it was a way station for Jews to be sent to extermination camps. By 1944, however, the ghetto was home to thousands of Jewish artists and scholars, an oasis of rich cultural life in a desert of death and suffering.
The convening of so many Jewish artists was not a coincidence but rather a propaganda tool. In preparation for the arrival of the Red Cross, the Nazis “beautified” the ghetto, and the works of the artists were put on full display as a ruse for the allied forces.
While the Nazis exploited the Jewish creatives, the Jewish creatives were using their craft and talents to rally and resist. Upon the arrival of the Red Cross to Theresienstadt in 1944, a group of Jews performed the Opera “Brundibár,” composed by Czech Jew Hans Krása, which mocked the Nazis in its libretto. The opera became a symbol of Jewish resilience.
Almost 80 years after its Theresienstadt performance, “Brundibár” serves as the inspiration for Bucks County composer and librettist Misha Dutka’s “Liebovar” or “The Little Blind Girl,” an opera similarly about the resilience of the Jewish artists and children of the Theresienstadt Ghetto. The opera’s third act, performed by the Delaware Valley Opera Co., will premiere at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival on Sept. 16.
Like the story it was inspired by, “Liebovar” takes place in Theresienstadt, where a group of Jews learns they will be sent to their death in Auschwitz. As a last-gasp effort to save themselves, they decide to put on an opera to woo their Nazi oppressors. The opera’s third act is the standalone opera-within-the-opera, a child-friendly performance rich with fantasy and the opera’s eponymous character.
The children’s opera-within-an-opera is a story of a medieval village where all but one child has mysteriously disappeared: a little blind girl. The girl is sent into the forest to search for the missing children, where she encounters animals and an ogre. Though a standalone performance meant for an audience of children, the opera-within-the-opera makes veiled references to the Jewish prisoner’s greater plight in Theresienstadt, just as “Brundibár” mocked the Nazi audience for which it was performed.
“Why not write an opera about Theresienstadt, about the prisoners of Theresienstadt, who learned they’re going to be sent to Auschwitz, and they decide to fight back with the only weapon at their disposal, which is opera,” Dutka said.
A composer and librettist for decades and Delaware Valley Opera Co. member and board of directors member for the past five years, Dutka is only just dipping his toes into working on Jewish-themed pieces.
Though Dutka has written children’s operas based on Chasidic tales, they never dealt with explicitly Jewish characters or culture. Several years ago, Dutka took one of his Chasidic-inspired operas to Beth Sholom Congregation’s Hazzan David Tilman, and Tilman pushed Dutka to pursue more Jewish content.
“It feels a little bit more personal … it took a long time,” Dutka said.
Dutka was used to writing an opera’s compositions, its music, but not its librettos, lyrics and narrative. For “Liebovar,” Dutka had to start from scratch, both writing the opera’s libretto and its compositions. As Dutka noticed growing antisemitism, it pushed him to continue work on his libretto.
“I really liked my story and thought it was a story that deserves to be told,” Dutka said. “Over the years, if I may, I’ve seen more antisemitism; I’ve seen Jews the targets for covert and overt hatred.”
The opera company’s upcoming performance of “Leibovar” is not only a way to expose a broader audience to Jewish-themed opera, which takes up little space in the art form’s greater canon, but it also provides an accessible moment for audiences to become acquainted with opera.
The company was founded in 1979 to provide opportunities for emerging artists to study and perform the different parts of opera, as well as to give audiences the chance to watch affordable opera.
“Opera encompasses all of the art forms into one,” company President Sandra Day said. “It’s the only art form that does that. It’s an amazing genre for people to see everything. There’s dance; there’s art; there’s a story; there’s drama; there’s music. I mean, it’s everything, and I think that should be one of the major draws.”
With a family-friendly opera in English, Dutka hopes “Liebovar”’s performance at the Fringe Festival will show the medium’s appeal to a broader audience.
“When we have a concept, a powerful concept, expressed to us in both words and music, it hits our consciousness,” Dutka said. “It hits our unconscious; it hits us on an emotional level, much more powerfully than just hearing notes, hearing music, hearing a symphony or watching a play.”
For more information about the performance, visit FringeArts.com/66372