The children's opera Brundibar, by the Czech composer Hans Krasa, has been described as the music that brought hope to the children of Terezin, a Nazi concentration camp in Czechoslovakia during World War II. Brundibar was performed more than 50 times at Terezin - partly so the Nazis could try to show the world how well they were treating young Jewish internees.
At the Washington National Opera's rehearsal studios just outside of town, 30 local-area children, from diverse backgrounds and ranging in age from ten to 14, are warming up their voices for scenes from Brundibar. For a month this summer the children study basic vocal techniques such as breath control and singing on key. But they also learn about the horrors of the Holocaust, specifically as they were experienced at the Terezin concentration camp, northwest of Prague in what is now the Czech Republic. The camp held a large contingent of Jewish artists and intellectuals, one of whom was the opera's composer, Hans Krasa. Eventually, along with tens of thousands of other residents of Terezin, he was shipped to Auschwitz and gassed. Of the 15,000 children held at Terezin, only 100 survived.
Some of this summer's opera students, like 12-year-old Caitlin Redding, were familiar with the era. "I knew quite a bit about the Holocaust before I came to camp because it's actually topic I've really studied," she says. I've read a lot of books about it, but it was amazing how much more I learned when I came to camp -- more things about the daily lives of the camps and the ghettoes. It was amazing."
Another student, eleven-year-old Alexander Carroll, learned about the Holocaust experience through his role as a doctor in the Brundibar opera. He explains, "The doctor's role is related to the Holocaust in a way that says it was not a healthy life to live during the Holocaust in the concentration camps or in the ghettoes. I knew a little about the Holocaust because I had met some survivors when I was little."
The opera's story centers on a brother and sister who raise money to buy food for their sick mother, only to have it snatched away by an evil organ grinder named Brundibar. But with the help of children from the neighborhood, and some animals, the brother and sister recover the money, good triumphs over evil, and everybody lives happily ever after.
The tragic venue in which the opera was first performed presented a challenge to present-day set designer Kevin Adams. He set the mood by painting barbed wire in the backdrop, but he also included some cheerful images from the opera itself, depicting the stores the children visited when they finally had the money to buy food for their mother. "I take this opportunity and create this fantasy world and I tried to create this unbelievably fantastic place where the ice cream shop is in the shape of an ice cream cone. The milk store is in the shape of a milk can," he says. "Then when you open the storefronts up, the ice cream, milk and bread are virtually made of gold, just glimmering."
Twelve-year-old Lauren Flowers plays a milkmaid in Brundibar and enjoyed the challenge of singing and walking on stage. "I actually found the staging (to be) a lot of work, but once everything through, it actually looks good," she marveled. Caitlin Redding, who plays a police officer in Brundibar, says her summer opera camp experience has her thinking about a singing career. "I definitely want to pursue opera in college," she says. "My goal is to become an opera singer when I'm older. I'd love to do that!"
The history lesson that accompanied the opera workshop formed a large part of the children's summer experience. Stage Director Cindy Oxberry says representatives of the U.S. National Holocaust Museum in downtown Washington were invited to talk to the children about the events that form the backdrop of Brundibar. "Several women educators come from the museum to our facility and they present slides and activity games in small groups," said Ms. Oxberry, adding that they "got all the children thinking about the Holocaust and children being without things and separated from their families. It's a wonderful introduction that they get."
The Washington National Opera's summer youth camp this year provided an introduction not merely to Holocaust history and to opera, but also to the reality that even in life's darkest moments, the light of human hope can shine through.