The heartbreaking story of new opera The Sage, first performed in Nazi concentration camps


The music that once echoed in a concentration camp will be heard on Gateshead’s Sage this month, as a groundbreaking North East festival gives voice to talented musicians whom the Nazis tried to silence.

Brundibár Arts Festival is the first annual festival in the UK dedicated to Holocaust music and arts. It was launched in 2016, with the aim of “positively documenting the amazing achievements of artists in adversity” and “keeping their stories alive through music and the arts”.

After being canceled last year due to Covid-19, it returns to the region with moving and stimulating programming.

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Musician Alexandra Raikhlina decided to found the festival after performing around 10 years ago at a Newcastle City Council event on Holocaust Memorial Day.

“I wanted to play something that was relevant at the time and I just did some very cursory research and came across a lot of fabulous music that I had never heard of,” she said. .

“I found it quite upsetting at the time because I thought I should know those tracks. That’s when the idea came to do something based on that music, because it’s such a shame that ‘it is not played and interpreted.”

The festival takes its name from the opera Brundibár, by Hans Krása, a Czech Jewish composer killed in Auschwitz. The opera was first performed by children from the Theresienstadt concentration camp, who performed the show 55 times in the camp before the actors and musicians, along with the composer, were all transported to Auschwitz to be murdered there.

This year, for the first time, the opera will be performed as part of the festival by the Opera North Youth Company and the Royal Northern Sinfonia, on 30 January in Sage Gateshead.

Brundibár Arts Festival Founder and Artistic Director Alexandra Raikhlina

Although the theme of the festival is dark, it aims to take a celebratory approach by sharing the talent and passion of musicians who were killed or forced to flee their homes during the Holocaust.

“In a way, although the subject of the festival is very difficult, I really think it’s a positive event: I want to bring out the most positive aspect, which is that these people have created incredible music in the most terrible circumstances,” says Alexandra.

“I think letting this music and their voices be cut short is almost letting these times win, and I don’t want that, instead we’re almost giving these people a second voice.”

She added: “Namening our festival after this iconic opera was our way of honoring the memory of all those children who suffered and perished, but also a way of celebrating creativity in adversity. It is our ultimate goal to keep the music of all these children alive. artists who have managed to create and inspire in unimaginable circumstances.

The opera itself, which tells the story of two children trying to get milk for their sick mother, teaming up with other local youths and wild animals against an angry organ grinder called Brundibár. Although a lighthearted tale in some ways, Alexandra says its theme of good versus evil gave those who performed it “hope” and a temporary escape from the horrors they were experiencing. . Despite the dire circumstances in which it was performed, she thinks this means the music deserves to be remembered for the positive effect it had.

She said: “These kids had nothing, they were stuck in this terrible place and it gave them something amazing to do and made them forget what they were going through. I think it’s really important to continue performing this piece, it’s still very relevant today and we must not let it go unperformed.”

With free tickets for everyone under 18 and accompanying educational programs with local schools, the choice of a children’s opera also demonstrates a desire to educate the younger generation about the horrors of the Holocaust, as its events begin to fade from living memory. Working in conjunction with the Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Center in Huddersfield, the festival will hold workshops for three schools on the theme of prejudice against acceptance.

The director said: “With the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors able to tell their stories first-hand, it’s up to our generation to find new ways to educate young people about what happened. is a very important part of what Brundibár Arts Festival is all about and we look forward to working with local schools to educate and inspire young people to work towards a more just and tolerant world.

She added, “I really think the music has so much to say about it beyond words.”

Alongside opera, its year, the festival tackles the theme of “Inspiring Women,” with opening and closing concerts celebrating female composers and paying tribute to inspiring women who lost their lives in the Holocaust.

A sepia shot of a woman with short curly hair holding a violin
Alma Rose, who conducted the women’s orchestra at Auschwitz

The opening concert, The White Rose, is dedicated to Sophie Scholl, an anti-Nazi activist who was executed aged just 21 after distributing anti-war leaflets at the University of Munich, where she was a student.

Meanwhile, the closing concert will be dedicated to Alma Rose, a talented violinist who conducted the women’s orchestra at Auschwitz. Alma and her fellow musicians literally played for their lives, and Alma’s hard work and dedication helped ensure the survival of those around her.

Tragically, Alma herself failed to make it out of the death camp.

Alexandra said: “Quite often in concerts, the majority of composers performed as men, so we decided last year to highlight female composers and dedicate each concert to a woman who has really made something extraordinary.”

The festival runs from January 22 to February 10 at venues in Newcastle and Gateshead. You can find out more about the events at

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