Taking up the cry

Special to The Times

When Chanice Duson sings Friday night in L.A. Opera Camp's production of "Brundibar," a Czech opera first performed by children in a Nazi concentration camp, she will be invoking the plight of "people like us."

But none of Chanice's relatives was among the nearly 15,000 Jewish children interned at Terezin in Czechoslovakia who later died at Auschwitz. None perished in the Holocaust at all. The 10-year-old fifth-grader from Burbank Elementary School is African American.

"You don't let people put you down just because they want to be ruler of the world," she said after a recent rehearsal, explaining the moral of "Brundibar." "It was hurtful to people like us because they were being treated bad because of their religion."

"Brundibar," written by composer Hans Krasa and lyricist Adolf Hoffmeister in 1938 in Prague, was staged 55 times by Czech Jewish children at Terezin. Krasa was himself imprisoned there beginning in 1942, and he reorchestrated the opera from a piano score that was smuggled into the camp.

Sixty years after those performances -- including one that was filmed for propaganda to show how well Jews lived under Nazi rule -- the 35-minute opera is sprouting up in different forms. Czech and German productions began touring Europe in the early '90s, but "Brundibar" remained largely unknown in this country until recently. Now children are singing it from New York City to Tulsa, Okla.

Meanwhile, in one of those coincidences coughed up by the zeitgeist, a children's book version has been published by Michael di Capua Books/Hyperion Books for Children. The book is the product of a three-year collaboration between Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of "Angels in America," and celebrated illustrator Maurice Sendak. It's already in its second printing after a healthy debut of 250,000 copies.

The book also marks the end of Sendak's lifelong obsession with the Holocaust.

"I'm 75 and it's a very significant finish to a subject that's haunted me my whole life," the Connecticut-based illustrator said in a telephone interview. "It's the most finished thing I've done artistically. I know I've done it, and that's something rare in an artist's life."

Critics agree with him. The New York Times called it Sendak's best work, applauding its "moments of haunting beauty."

Like the L.A. Opera Camp presentations -- at Santa Monica's Miles Memorial Playhouse on Friday night and at the Museum of Tolerance on Sunday -- the book version of "Brundibar" encompasses children of different faiths.

Sendak and Kushner, who are both Jewish, tweaked the story by making the two main characters, a brother and sister fetching milk for their ill mother, Christian. "The assumption when it was done in the camp was that they all were Jewish because the children [who sang it] were all Jewish," Sendak says. "But all kids get in the way of the bullet. In New York City there are shootouts. These kids got sucked into the Holocaust."

In the book and the new productions, "Brundibar" has taken on dual roles -- as a memorial to the murdered Jewish children of Terezin as well as a broader rallying cry to band together against tyranny.

To bring home both lessons to the 37 student singers, L.A. Opera Camp has joined hands with the Museum of Tolerance at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, where the exhibit "Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the Children of Terezin" runs through Aug. 1. The exhibit of the art teacher's heroic work with the children of Terezin, which included helping with the costumes for "Brundibar," features a Nazi propaganda photo of the camp's cast.

"We had to make sure we trained them in how to be the messengers," says Stacy Brightman, L.A. Opera's director of education and community programs. "We wanted them to have some understanding of the social and historical context as well as the message of this opera: that by working together we can overcome adversity in the face of overwhelming odds."

The siblings at the heart of the opera manage to do exactly that in their quest for money to buy milk for their mother. They see an organ grinder, Brundibar (Czech for "bumblebee"), collecting coins for the music he makes in the town square. When they try to do the same, the greedy Brundibar forces them out. A cat, dog and bird suggest the sister and brother recruit other children to help them stake their claim, and together they triumph over evil.

For three years, L.A. Opera has worked with the Madison Project of Santa Monica College to offer students age 9 to 16 from all over L.A. County the chance to put on an opera at the end of a 10-week program of challenging Saturday sessions. Both L.A. Opera and Madison Project administrators had "Brundibar" on the top of their lists.

Dale Franzen, director of the Madison Project, was inspired by a Washington Opera production several years ago. "Bullying is a big issue on middle and high school campuses and, in fact, on elementary school campuses," Franzen says. "So I thought this was a great way of addressing that issue."

Brightman discovered it three years ago when she attended an Opera America event in Atlanta honoring one of the few survivors from the original cast, 73-year-old Ela Stein Weissberger, who sang the part of the cat at Terezin.

"Wherever there are productions of 'Brundibar,' she tries to go and tell her story," Brightman says. "It was extraordinarily moving and it was so clear that this was something we needed to do in Los Angeles."

Weissberger, a window-treatment designer living in upstate New York, was one of only about 100 children at the camp saved from extermination at Auschwitz. Nazis began sending people to the death camp -- including composer Krasa, who died in the gas chambers in 1944 -- but people who had jobs related to the German war effort weren't transported. Weissberger and her sister and mother worked on a vegetable farm and were allowed to stay in Terezin.

In February 1942 Weissberger arrived in Theresienstadt, which is what the Nazis renamed the Czech town of Terezin, near Prague. The piano score of "Brundibar" had been smuggled into the camp by Rudy Freudenseld. His father had operated Prague's Jewish Orphanage for Boys, where the opera was first privately performed in 1941, at a time when Jews were barred from gathering in public.

Freudenseld assigned Weissberger the role of the cat, and she sang it for all 55 performances in 1943 and 1944. One notable performance was held on June 23, 1944, for International Red Cross inspectors, for whom the Nazi propaganda film "The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City" was made. Most others were for camp inmates who squeezed into an attic, 100 or more at a time, to hear the opera over and over. Showtime was the only time the children didn't have to wear the yellow Jewish stars that were a constant reminder of their threatened status under the Nazis. When the children sang about their victory, everyone joined in. "It gave the audience a wonderful feeling of hope that we will survive there in Terezin," says Weissberger, who will again sing the victory song with the L.A. Opera Camp performers. "But it didn't happen, even for most of my family. I always say to people when they hear 'Brundibar,' please don't forget my friends. They are not here, but they are in my heart until I die."

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'Brundibar'

Where: Miles Memorial Playhouse, Christine Reed Park, 1130 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica

When: Friday, noon and 7 p.m.

Price: Free, but reservations are required

Info: (310) 434-3431

Also

Where: Museum of Tolerance, 9876 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles

When: Sunday, 1:30 p.m.

Price: $7-$10

Contact: (310) 772-2452

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