Holocaust Survivor, UK Opera Stage 'Brundibár'

by Whitney Hale

University of Kentucky Opera Theatre presents "Brundibár," a children's opera staged in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. The opera performed for children by children will also feature an appearance by one of the production's original performers, Holocaust survivor Ela Weissberger. "Brundibár" will take the stage March 11 and 13, at the Singletary Center for the Arts Concert Hall.

Performed during the Holocaust at Theresienstadt Camp in Terezín, "Brundibár" was used by the Nazi regime as a propaganda tool to show the world how "happy and productive" the Jewish detainees were at the camps. The piece, was staged more than 50 times at the camp between 1943 and 1944, including performances presented for representatives of the Red Cross and a Nazi propaganda film.

The Hans Krasa and Adolf Hoffmeister opera tells the story of two children singing to raise money to help their ailing mother. Brundibár, an evil organ grinder, chases the children out of the town square until a bird, cat, dog and chorus of children come to the children's aid, helping them sing over the organ grinder and collect enough money to help their mother. Interestingly, the symbolism of the once helpless children overcoming Brundibár was not lost on audiences who recognized the bully character as Hitler, yet the Nazis never viewed the opera as a threat.

Ela Weissberger, a survivor and one of the opera's original performers, is on hand this week at the university to advise the cast and to speak to audiences of the opera. She is also participating in history and music classes at UK, as well as a symposium related to Terezín.
 
At only 11, Weissberger, her mother and sister were taken to Terezín in what was then Czechoslovakia in February of 1942. Cast as the Cat in "Brundibár," she sang in every performance of the opera at the camp. Weissberger, her mother and sister were among a small percentage of individuals interned who survived their time at the camp to see it liberated in 1945. To see Weissberger and other Theresienstadt survivors talk about their time at Theresienstadt, watch the "60 Minutes" story "Nazi Ruse Covered Up Holocaust."
 
"This is an incredible opportunity for our students, faculty and indeed the entire community to have the opportunity to meet Ms. Weissberger and to hear her story," says UK Opera Theatre Executive Director Everett McCorvey, of the UK School of Music at the UK College of Fine Arts. "This has been an opera that I have wanted to present to the Lexington community for many years and I am very happy that we are able to present the opera and also present it at a time that works in to Ela’s schedule."
 
At 80 years old, Weissberger is in demand all over the world as she travels and tells of her experience being in "Brundibár." Recent trips have taken her to Alaska, New Mexico and the Los Angeles Opera with Placido Domingo. Future trips include a return trip to Terezín, as well as New York and New Jersey
 
UK Opera Theatre's production of "Brundibár," directed by Richard Kagey, includes a cast of 50 children between the ages of 7 and 16 representing 26 schools from the Lexington community. The children and youth worked with UK doctoral students Daniel Chetel and Mary Joy Nelson, assistant director and vocal coach, in preparation for the opera. Chetel will conduct members of the UK Symphony Orchestra using the original scores written in the camp specifically for the children who were there.
 
Seventh graders from Fayette County Public Schools will get the opportunity to see the first two performances of "Brundibár" on Friday, March 11. Two more performances of the historical production will be presented for the public at 2 and 4 p.m. Sunday, March 13, at the Singletary Center for the Arts Concert Hall. A recital of Holocaust music will be presented by alumna Megan McCauley before each opera performance and Weissberger will speak to audiences after each performance. McCauley received her doctoral degree from UK last spring.
 
Tickets for "Brundibár" are $18 for general admission and $10 for children under 12. A processing fee will be applied upon transaction. Tickets can be purchased through the Singletary Center ticket office by phone at (859) 257-4929; online at www.singletarytickets.com, or in person.
 
In addition to the opera, UK Opera Theatre will present the "Symposium on Brundibár and the Terezín Ghetto" from noon to 3:15 p.m. Thursday, March 10, at the Niles Gallery, located in the Lucille C. Little Fine Arts Library and Learning Center. The symposium, which features music and talks related to the concentration camp, includes:
- "Voices of Terezín," performances of songs from Terezín by Megan McCauley, will begin at noon;
- “Life in the Terezín Ghetto,” a lecture by Jeremy Popkin, a history professor and director of the UK Judaic Studies Program, will begin at 1 p.m.; and
- a talk with Ela Weissberger, original cast member of "Brundíbár," on her life then and now will begin at 2 p.m.
This symposium is free and open to the public.
 
For more information on "Brundibár" or the "Symposium on Brundibár and the Terezín Ghetto," contact UK Opera Theatre at (859) 257-9331.  For a video

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