A Holocaust ghetto…a children’s opera

Once upon a time, a young girl played a cat in a children’s fairy-tale opera, a story of good triumphing over evil. But circumstances of the opera’s performance were no fairy tale: the children sang in a concentration camp called Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia.

The children’s opera was Brundibar, which will be performed here, Nov. 19-21, by Opera Theatre of St. Louis. In addition to two public performances, the opera will be shown to numerous schoolchildren from the area.

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The little girl who played a cat was Ela Weissberger, who will speak after every performance and answer questions from the audience.

Brundibar was performed 55 times in Theresienstadt and Weissberger was in each performance. Just as in the play, the children who survived have had the last word.

The story is a fairy tale, in which two poor fatherless children, Aninka ( Annette) and Pepicek (Little Joe), try to earn money to buy milk for their sick mother, by singing in the town square. The bully Brundibar, an organ grinder, tries to steal their money but the children triumph with the help of a cat, a dog, a lark and the town’s other children.

In this story of good overcoming evil, Brundibar was understood by the children of Theresienstadt to represent Hitler, although the Germans appeared not to have noticed, possibly because it was sung in Czech and it was a children’s opera. Brundibar was composed by Jewish Czech composer Hans Krasa, with a libretto by Adolf Hoffmeister, said Daniel Reich, Curator and Director of Education at the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center.

“The opera became something of a symbol of cultural resistance,” Reich said.

Having Weissberger speak about her experiences in Theresienstadt will make the production all the more powerful, Reich said.

“She is living history, She will bring that production to life,” he said. “When you have Ela, who can express what it meant to her as a child to be part of it, it is almost eerie, it is so moving that she is still here to express that. It adds another layer of importance and power to what I know will be an really incredible performance.”

The production, which will feature 26 local children ranging in age from 8 to 18, is directed by Doug Scholz-Carlson, with video created by Wendall Harrington, who designed the remarkable video segments for Opera Theatre’s production The Ghosts of Versailles. Brundibar was also presented here in 1997. Musicians from the St. Louis Youth Symphony Orchestra will provide the music, under direction by Greg Ritchey.

“The opera itself is only about half an hour long, so we’ve got a little play based on a diary of a young (14-year-old) boy named Petr Ginz, who lived in Prague and was sent to Theresienstadt,” said director Doug Scholz-Carlson. “He then perished at Auschwitz, but he left behind a diary.”

A young actor plays Ginz, who offers narration through his diary. “We imagine that Petr Ginz was part of the opera. Then we do the opera as if the kids in the concentration camp are putting on the opera,” Scholz-Carlson said.

At the end of the production there is narration about the fate of some of actors in the concentration camp — most of whom didn’t survive, he said. “But there were a number of them, Ela Weissberger included, who did survive. So that gives us an opportunity to give a little bit of a hopeful ending. Then we can have Ela come out on stage and tell about her experiences,” he said.

Reich noted that Petr Ginz was the same boy whose drawing “Moon Landscape” was taken on the ill-fated Columbia Space Shuttle flight by Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.

The Nazis used Theresienstadt as a “model Jewish settlement” for human rights inspectors, where the real conditions were far harsher than presented.

“There was a special performance in 1944 when a Red Cross delegation came to check on conditions in the ‘model ghetto,'” Reich said. “A prominent filmmaker made a propaganda film called The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews. Anyone who was sickly-looking was deported to Auschwitz. Fake storefronts, temporary storefronts, were created, people were milling around bandstands — there was a lecture series. In fact, many intellectuals were in Theresienstadt. Those people were already there but they put on a show for the Red Cross delegation, and one of the highlights was the performance of this opera Brundibar.

“Even being the model camp, it was a pretty horrible situation. After the performances, most of the casts were deported to Auschwitz,” he said.


WHAT: Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ production of a children’s opera performed in the Theresienstadt concentration camp during the Holocaust. Survivor Ela Weissberger, one of original cast members, will speak after each show.

WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 19 and 10 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 21.

WHERE: The Touhill Performing Arts Center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus

HOW MUCH: $18 for adults and $12 for children. For tickets call 314- 516-4949 or online at www.touhill.org.

MORE INFO: Cable channel HEC-TV plans for Weissberger to take part in a live broadcast from the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center on Tuesday, Nov. 17. Brundibar is made possible with a leadership gift from Dana Brown Charitable Trust, U.S. Bank Trustee; with generous support from Michael and Carol Staenberg in conjunction with THF Realty, Inc.