Artist Date 116: Brundibar

Brundibar_button

I am surprised by my tears.

I don’t know why. As my ex-boyfriend D once noted with great endearment, “You cry about everything.” But today they surprise me.

Perhaps because it is not quite noon (not that tears are a great respecter of clocks) and it seems early in the day to have such an outpouring of emotion. Or perhaps it is because I have spent the entirety of this Artist Date (number 116) mired in irritation.

I am at Madrid’s Teatro Real for a performance of Brundibar, Hans Krasa’s children’s opera, re-written from memory and performed 55 times at Theresienstadt – the ghetto and concentration camp located about an hour from Prague.

I feel awkward walking to the opera – just a few blocks from my house. It is a children’s performance and I am attending sans child. My discomfort is heightened as I show the usher my ticket.

“You know this is just one ticket? One seat,” she inquires.

Yes, I am aware.

And I am once again reminded of the Spaniards distaste for aloneness. I didn’t buy into this when it was first pointed out to me by a long-time expat during my first days in Madrid. Over the past nine months I’ve become increasingly more aware that at best, Spaniards do not value time spent alone, and at worst, pity it. My Spanish students and friends confirm this.

The child next to me is sniffling and blowing his nose. I privately regard him with disdain as a human petri dish and hope not to catch whatever has taken root in his small body. The pain in my leg and hip that has followed me from California to Chicago to Seattle to Madrid announces itself. A bodyworker by trade, I roll the skin of my thigh between my fingers – burning, painful – hoping to encourage its release. I am, in a word, distracted.

The opera is performed in Spanish – which I don’t expect, even though I know there will be no subtitles. For some reason I expect it to be performed in Czech, and that none of us will know the exact words being sung. Ridiculous.

But as it is in Spanish, I feel obligated to try to understand it. If it were any other language, I wouldn’t even try. Instead I would let the words wash over me, charmed by their different sounds and tickled if by chance I know any of them.

But this is not the case. And now, my Sunday morning Artist Date feels like a work. Like a Spanish lesson.

The performance lasts about 45 minutes. The music and costumes are fanciful and the children’s voices, high and sweet. I know its story because I read up on it last night.

It is a simple tale of fatherless children who need milk for their sick mother, but have no money to purchase it. They decide to sing in the marketplace to earn money but are chased away by the evil organ grinder, Brundibar (who represents Hitler). With the help of a bird, a cat, a dog and other children, they chase away Brundibar and are able to sing in the square.

But it is only as the performers take their bows that I connect to the performance and the story. Only now that the details I learned while reading in bed push up and out of me.

That among the 55 performances of the opera at Theresienstadt was one for the Red Cross, who had come to investigate conditions in the “ghetto,” and one for the Nazi propaganda film Der Fuher schenkt den Juden eine Stadt (The Führer Gives the Jews a City). That many of the Jews living in Theresiendstadt were sent to their deaths at Auschwitz prior to the Red Cross visit to make the ghetto appear less crowded and more comfortable. And that all who participated in the film were sent to Auschwitz upon its completion, and most of them gassed upon arrival.

That, according to Ela Weissberger, a survivor who played the role of the cat at Theresienstadt, the only time the children could remove their identifying yellow Star of David was during performances.

But it is what I have read on radio.cz that has moved me from irritation to tears.

“It is chilling to think that the cast had to be renewed constantly as a growing number of the children were transported to Auschwitz.”

It is this thought that runs through my head as the children take their bows, ironically on the second day of Passover – the celebration of the Jews liberation from slavery. That this cast will be renewed based upon age, not death. And I am no longer surprised by my tears.

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Artist Date 31: He Played Debussy on my Naked Body. Believing in the God of Synchronicity

pianist of willesden laneLast week Stephanie W. invited me on an Artist Date.  This week Stephanie G. did.

However, unlike Stephanie W., who offered a suggestion – one that allowed me the prescribed solo experience of an Artist Date – Stephanie G invited me to join her and our mutual friend, Hallie, at the theatre.  Not solo.  Technically, not an Artist Date.

Yes, I spend this sort of time splitting these sorts of hairs.  As if the Artist Date police might show up at my door.  So I was relieved to read the following in Julia Cameron’s Walking in the World – her follow-up to The Artist’s Way, where I first became acquainted with the Artist Date.

In the section titled “Basic Tools,” Cameron writes:

“…the Artist’s Date…is assigned play…

“Synchronicity – that uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time – picks up markedly as we practice Artist’s Dates.”

Stephanie’s invitation to The Royal George Theatre for The Pianist of Willesden Lane – Artist Date 31 –felt like that, like play, like synchronicity.

I’ve been thinking about music a lot lately.  My coffers crying out for sound.

I considered Harry Connick, Jr. at the Chicago Symphony.  Tickets were pricey unless I wanted to sit in the rafters.  Which I didn’t.  I wanted to see him.  Easy on the eyes, as my friend Teresa used to say.  Sitting in the gallery section would only frustrate me.

I considered a free concert at Millenium Park.  I considered a trip to the record store.

Yet I found myself in a woefully off-center, red-velvet theatre seat, flanked by Hallie on my right, and a mercifully empty seat on my left.  A Steinway Grand (Baby Grand?  Concert Grand?) and a handful of oversized frame mirrors on stage in front of me.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane is the story of Lisa Jura.  How her commitment and passion for the piano, along with the “kindness of strangers” and some sort of higher power – call it synchronicity – saved her life during World War II.  Written and performed solo by Jura’s daughter, Mona Golabek, The Pianist of Willesden Lane is told both in words and music.

Bach. Beethoven. Rachmaninoff.

Debussy.

I feel fingertips on my body.

I am lying in bed with the former symphony conductor.  He is playing the notes on my naked body – silky strains that sound like watercolor.  Ridiculously sexy.  He is teaching me about music.  Telling me about his life.  Interlochen.  Tanglewood.  Studying with Leonard Bernstein.

I have been assigned to write the obituary for his father – a kind-hearted, heavy-hitter in the community.  We speak over the phone.  He is funny, wry.  Smart and sweet.  I find a photograph of him in the files.  He has dark hair and a beard, bright eyes and a kind smile.  He is wearing a tuxedo.  I am smitten.

We meet through a series of synchronicities, and spend the next couple of weeks in bed – with Debussy, and frequently a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Mint Oreo Cookie.  I fancy myself “Mrs. Former Conductor.”  And then it is over.

I haven’t thought about him for a long time.  But my body remembers.

Like the Holocaust survivor I interviewed.  She lost her sense of smell during the war.  She regained it more than 40 years later when she returned to Germany.  She smelled manure.  Her body remembered.

I’ve been thinking of her ever since I saw Brighton Beach Memoirs a few weeks ago with my friend Michelle.  I told her how I had the great, good fortune to interview and tell the stories of so many Holocaust survivors when I worked for the Jewish Bulletin.

I don’t hear their stories much anymore.  Most of them are gone.  Until now.

Lisa Jura arrives in London from Vienna – one of thousands of children on the Kindertransport.  She is 14.

A few years later she is a student at the Royal London School of Music.  In the evening she plays piano in a hotel bar, where she meets many admirers.  Among them a Royal Air Force commander.

He is shy.  His English is poor.  His comrades approach her with a rose and act as his translator.

He says she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen.  That she must tell him when she makes her debut.  And then he is gone.  Not just from the bar, but from London.  To war.

Lisa Jura and the Royal Air Force Commander.
Lisa Jura and the Royal Air Force Commander.

And then it is over.  The war.  Just like that.

Miraculously, the commander is at her debut.  So are her two sisters.  They too have survived.

The lights go up.  Golabek steps out of Jura, and back into herself.  Post Script.  Lisa Jura immigrated to the United States.  The commander followed her, married her.  He is Golabek’s father.

I get teary.  Really teary.

I want to believe in ridiculously romantic love.  The kind I shared with the conductor.  The kind I had a glimpse of when a certain southern gentleman, upon learning I could not possibly see him again, pulled me close to him and said, “I’ll come find you.”

I want to believe in a God that allows three Jewish sisters to survive the Holocaust and then somehow find one another in post-war London.  Who then places two of them across the street from one another in Los Angeles.

I want to believe in Go(o)dness.  The go(o)dness of people who care for children that are not their own.  Who feed them.  Clothe them.  Shelter them.  Love them.  Foster their talent and dreams while a war wages outside their window.

I want to believe in the God of Synchronicity.  And I do.