Muse Lee, our favorite high school blogger, has returned for a series on her participation in the Opera Camp production of Hans Krása's Brundibár. Performances took place August 10 and 11 at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre. This is her fourth and final post in the series.
On Friday morning, we arrived at our performance venue, Barnsdall Gallery Theatre, with side-parts, curls, and way too much hairspray. It was the day of the dress rehearsal.
Once everyone had arrived, we headed into the theater. Dr. Stacy Brightman, Senior Director of Education and Community Engagement, formally introduced Mrs. Ela Weissberger, the original Cat in all 55 performances of Brundibár in Terezín.
The coming hour, Dr. Brightman said, would be the most important of Opera Camp. Mrs. Weissberger sat down in a chair, and we crowded around her on the floor. Mrs. Weissberger then shared her story. She was 11 years old when her family was deported. She recalled that it was snowing that day, and that she had begged her mother to take her home. Her story led us from the border-crossing in the icy weather, through the uncertain days in Terezín, through her liberation and return to civilian life, and at last, to the worldwide revivals of Brundibár. Despite everything, what amazed me the most was that her words were so full of light. She spoke of friendship and hope, and of her art teacher Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. “Sometimes, I hear her voice like it was yesterday,” Mrs. Weissberger stated.
Though using names was not allowed and everyone was referred to by a number, Friedl told her students, “Children, you are not numbers. You have names.” Friedl encouraged her students to sign their names on all their work. It was an affirmation of freedom.
Mrs. Weissberger also pulled out a yellow felt cut-out and held it up in front of us. It was her original Jewish star. The only time she didn’t have to wear it was while performing Brundibár. She now calls it her “lucky star.”
We finished our conversation with a question-and-answer session. Then, we headed into the auditorium, and with Mrs. Weissberger watching, we ran scenes from Friedl and Brundibár, accompanied by the orchestra for the first time.
A group of us spoke with Mrs. Weissberger a little more after lunch. Several people asked her about their characters in Friedl. Since she knew them in real life, her words were invaluable. She also showed us copies of illustrations by children in Terezín. One drawing by Mrs. Weissberger herself depicted a girl from Holland. Over her rendition of a Dutch bonnet, there was another set of lines. They were Friedl’s corrections. It gave me chills.
After our conversation, we ran Friedl and Brundibár in costume twice, with the staff giving notes on what to fix or improve. We were sweating and exhausted by the end, but Dr. Brightman had words of encouragement for us: Maestro James Conlon, LA Opera Music Director, had sent us all a letter. He wished us a wonderful performance and thanked us for participating in Opera Camp. “Through (Mrs. Weissberger), and through the music of Hans Krása, you are connected to those children who performed Brundibár at Terezín 70 years ago,” he wrote. “I believe that you sing for yourselves, for each other, and for them as well. Someday, I hope you will share stories of this experience with your own children and grandchildren.”
On Saturday morning, the day of the first two performances, we warmed up and went over a few rough spots. Time soon ran out, though, and the audience started to line up outside. We retreated backstage and the house opened. Soon, places were called, and the performance began.
We danced and sang, leapt and laughed, sweated and strained. After fifty minutes of sashaying, lunging, box-stepping, and marching, the orchestra hit the triumphant final note. The audience swept us up in loud applause, and as we bowed, we broke out into smiles—we had done it. Our production’s Cat led the original Cat onstage, and we all sat down to hear her speak. Mrs. Weissberger shared with the audience that this year marked the 70th anniversary of Brundibár’s first performance in Terezín. She went on to tell them about her experiences, just as she had with us. Joining hands with her, we rose to sing the Victory March once more. The next performance followed the same pattern. Completely exhausted, we straggled home.
The next day, we arrived, ready for our final two performances. Our director Eli Villanueva reminded us of the 700 years of stage tradition that came before us. Everything we do is “either honoring what they have built or disrespecting it.” In the next two performances, I hope we made him proud.
As usual, Mrs. Weissberger finished the performance with a speech. In it, she recounted a special memory. Friedl would lead the children to the window, which offered a view of the mountains. She would say, “Children, look out. It’s a beautiful day.” Mrs. Weissberger’s voice grew meditative as she went on. “And Terezín is surrounded by mountains. ‘The sun is above those mountains. But what is important is what is beyond those mountains. Beyond those mountains is hope, hope that you will survive.’” Mrs. Weissberger smiled. “Here I am. I survived.”
We sang the Victory March one last time with Mrs. Weissberger. Then, we bowed, retreated offstage, and hung up our costumes for the last time. While exchanging hugs, phone numbers, and goodbyes, we headed upstairs to the lawn for a little cast party.
Each of us received a goodbye present. As we munched on cake and other delicious desserts, we took a look at the gifts: a mounted group photograph and a copy of the program. On the program was a note from Mrs. Weissberger herself.
“Remember me and my friends
With love Ela
Cat from TEREZÍN”
She did sign her name.