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 will take place August 10 and 11 at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre. This is her second post in the series.
Opera Camp continued on Wednesday. As usual, we began with a session with movement director Leslie Stevens. Then, we dove into a Brundibár music rehearsal. When we reviewed the Lullaby, which the children use to stifle the villain’s song, we sung it tenderly and softly. Our conductor, Karen Hogle Brown, told us, “It isn’t a lullaby, it’s a fight. It’s a reminder that every person is human.” I liked the idea that we are human through our ability to create art, and I made a mental note to explore it later. After our music rehearsal, we teens had a Friedl rehearsal. The younger kids went to a tech workshop, in which they learned and played theater games.
Then we stepped onto the bus and set off for the day’s main program: the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH), the oldest Holocaust collection in the United States. When we walked in, we were faced with the Tree of Testimony, a wall full of television screens that each featured a man or woman speaking to us. Our guide, a former teacher named Ruth Harris, greeted us, and she explained that every screen played the testimony of a Holocaust survivor. Our guide explained that though the generation that witnessed the Holocaust first-hand will eventually be gone, “…once we have their accounts, we become the testimonies.”
She led us next to the Goldrich Family Foundation’s Children’s Memorial, an outdoor space enclosed by a wall. Inspired by the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the wall has 1.2 million holes drilled into its slabs, some large, some small, representing the lives of children lost. We each had an opportunity to write a note to one of the children and place it in one of the holes, the size depending on the child’s age. I wasn’t sure what to tell the smiling boy on the slip of paper I received. I ended up writing that we would think of him as we performed our operas and be his voice. I rolled up the paper and slipped it into one of the smallest holes.
Our guide then led us through exhibits filled with photographs, documents, and artifacts illustrating the history of anti-Semitism up through the Holocaust. She reminded us that anti-Semitism is still alive today, but that we can combat it.
“Hatred is learned. It’s not something that’s innate,” she stated.
Our tour finished, and, after thanking her, we headed to the Survivor Presentation room. At this time, it displays the Erich Lichtblau-Leskly Theresienstadt Collection, paintings by an artist from the very camp where Brundibár was performed, Terezín.
In that room, we got the opportunity to hear the story of Peter Daniels, a survivor of the Terezín camp. Mr. Daniels was born in Nazi-ruled Berlin in 1936, with the Nuremberg Laws firmly in place. These rules prevented him from going to school, parks, playgrounds, and movie theaters. Fear of the Nazis stopped him from even venturing outside. His single mother worked all day, and the laws prohibited Jews from hiring non-Jewish babysitters, so his childhood was profoundly lonely.
In 1943, the Nazi Gestapo deported him and his mother from Berlin, and they travelled for two days before reaching Terezín in Czechoslovakia. His experience in the camp was appalling, but he was one of the few lucky ones: out of the 15,000 children who arrived in the camp, only around 125 survived.
“I don’t remember any of the boys because most of them died,” he told us. “They came in, and three months later, they were gone.”
He shared an account of life at Terezín. He told us how the Brundibár cast always changed because children kept leaving. He then told us about how he and his mother immigrated to America after liberation, and about his long struggle adjusting to the new culture and language. What moved me the most was the way he summed up his experience before, during, and after his time in Terezín. “When I was born,” he concluded, “I was already fourteen.”
We returned on Thursday with a renewed earnestness and dedication to Brundibár and Friedl. That day, as we continued learning new sections and worked on staging, a question arose in my mind: why was the opera titled Brundibár, after the villain? Karen and I looked into the program notes, but we couldn’t find an answer.
Though the question stayed in my mind, I pushed it away as we rehearsed. One thing we focused on in Friedl was the acting—or lack thereof. “There is no need for acting,” our director, Eli Villanueva, told us. “Opposed to the heightened, cartoonish Brundibár, this needs to be as real and true as we can make it.” After visiting LAMOTH, we found that it was much easier to envision the world of Friedl. We were able to place ourselves in our characters’ shoes.
By Friday, we had loosened up considerably, and we spent most of the day laughing. Firstly, to encourage us to work on our diction, Eli promised twenty dollars to whoever first over-enunciated. After flourishing the bill in our face and calmly observing us spit all over the floor, he revealed that there was no way to over-enunciate, so his money had been safe all along. Then, later that day, when Eli was instructing us to express disgust at the two lead characters, Joe and Annette, he demonstrated with some devious facial expressions of his own. They included imitations of the Wicked Witch of the West and Ursula. Let’s just say that we’ll try our hardest at perfecting our sneers so that we won’t have to witness his demonstration again.
We did have a very serious discussion on Friday. The question about the opera’s title, Brundibár, had come up again: why was the opera named after the villain? Two of my friends and I talked about it, and suddenly, we had the answer. It was simply that Brundibár translates to “Bumblebee.”
On the first day, Dr. Stacy Brightman, Senior Director of Education and Community Engagement, had told us how the Nazis used Brundibár as propaganda, filming it to present the camps as thriving centers of culture. She had concluded, “Art can be a force for good, but here, art was twisted for an evil purpose.”
I then remembered my idea from Wednesday that our ability to create art makes us human. When I thought about what Dr. Brightman said, I realized that’s not quite it. What makes us human is our ability to choose to use art for good. With art, we can, like the bee does, either make honey or sting—though, as in Brundibár’s case, we can’t expect to use the stinger without consequences! So maybe the opera, Bumblebee, isn’t actually named just for the villain, but also for Joe, Annette, and all the rest of us. And perhaps the children who sang this opera in Terezín are the bees, too: though some believe that the size of a bee’s wings means that it shouldn’t be able to fly, it flies anyway.