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Blog entries tagged with Eli Villanueva

Noah’s Flood Rehearsal = the pain, the agony, the achievement

Muse Lee, our favorite high school blogger, has returned for a series on her participation in the Community Opera production of Benjamin Britten's Noah's Flood.  Performances are April 19 and 20 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.


Recently, I heard a comic comparing a music rehearsal to the ER. Both are supposed to help you get better, both make you cry, and both are filled with excruciating pain. During Noah’s Flood rehearsal on Sunday, we experienced all three of these things.

For this rehearsal, only the animals, raindrops, waves, rainbows, and the raven and dove were called. I’m one of the fourteen waves. Basically, what we do is maneuver long strips of blue fabric, with two people per strip. I had a similar job during Opera Camp, so I thought I was prepared for this. However, I soon realized that there are two crucial differences between The White Bird of Poston and Noah’s Flood waves. Firstly, this wave scene goes on for 7 minutes, and secondly, while the Poston waves represented the Colorado River, these waves are supposed to make up a worldwide flood.

Flood #1

To help us achieve the desired effect, assistant director, Heather Lipson-Bell patiently and energetically taught us a bunch of different wave movements. I don’t want to give it all away before the performance, but I’ll just say that it involved incessant arm-pumping, duck-walking, and squats. Twenty minutes in, my wavemate and I were already hot and red-faced. By the end, we were ready to drown along with God’s condemned. I think my muscles hate me right now. 

After our exhausting wave movement session, we listened to the music for the storm and flood scene. When I heard the glorious, crashing music, it suddenly hit me: I’m actually in a Benjamin Britten opera. I’ll be singing something written by Benjamin Britten. Both that thought and the beauty of the music gave me chills. My eyes watered. There’s nothing like opera to bring on the tears.

Following this, we were released, but I didn’t want to leave yet. I’d been hearing the kids singing their animal parts upstairs, and I really wanted to get a glimpse of their rehearsal. Halfway there, I heard a huge, enthusiastic voice that almost sounded amplified. Turns out it was assistant director, Nathan Rifenburg – who happens to have twice the energy of an average human being.

When I walked into the classroom, he was animatedly demonstrating monkey movements, bouncing around and bending down to pick imaginary bugs out of a kid’s hair. I was trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, but it was just too awesome not to giggle. The best part was that the kids weren’t laughing at all. They took it all so seriously. Whenever Nathan told them to stand up, they immediately sprang up like jack-in-the-boxes. And their ark entrance scene—wow. They were so focused, and even if I couldn’t immediately tell what animal they were, I saw that they believed in it, and so I did too. The rest of rehearsal was delightful: the best parts included an impromptu “Doe-A-Deer” and Nathan’s colorful description of well-supported singing as “throwing your guts on the table.”

Flood #3

The day ended on an exciting note: as we were leaving, we received Noah’s Flood posters. It includes the names of all participating choruses and orchestras. The fact that we’re on the same poster as James Conlon is way too awesome to handle. And I had no idea that Ronnita Nicole Miller will be Mrs. Noye. I started spazzing out. (download the poster here)

As for us ensemble members, though?  Improvement: check. Tears: check. Pain: double check. We know what that means: this production is on its way to becoming something incredible.


Noah's Flood Rehearsal: When the Opera Pixies Take Over

Muse Lee, our favorite high school blogger, has returned for a series on her participation in the Community Opera production of Benjamin Britten's Noah's Flood.  Performances are April 19 and 20 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Tickets become available tomorrow, March 14 at 10am.
 

With five upcoming tests, an essay to write, and a lost hour of sleep, I really didn't want to go to Noah’s Flood rehearsal on Sunday. I’d spent the weekend studying, sneezing, and wallowing in self-pity. When I finally dragged myself out of the house, though, everything changed. The opera pixies took over: the moment I signed myself in, all the stress disappeared, and I was ready to sing.

NF - Floyd coaching

Assistant Conductor Paul Floyd leads the adults in a music rehearsal.

The day started with a change of scenery. Instead of practicing in the auditorium as usual, we switched places with the children and went into the upstairs classroom. There, we reviewed the opening scene with assistant director Heather. Before I could get totally wrapped up in it, though, a few of us were pulled out for costume fitting. The group of us went into a small room, and we were greeted by costume designer Paula Higgins. After taking our measurements, she gave us costumes to try on. I loved mine immediately—it really looked and felt like water. I was reluctant to take it off, but I knew I’d see it a lot in the coming weeks, so I put it back on the hanger and returned to rehearsal.

Heather Lipson Bell

Assistant Director Heather Lipson-Bell

When we got back, we practiced the choreography with the singing and moved onto the storm scene. We waves didn’t have to learn the movements, so we stood off to the side and observed. It was so cool to just watch the scene develop—it gave us an idea of how it'll look to the audience.

After trooping downstairs and refining the opening a little more, most of the ensemble took a break. Those of us working with props, though, stepped up to rehearse with Heather and director Eli. Eli distributed wave fabric to each pair and determined our positions and cues. Then, we went over our movements and practiced engulfing the doomed. My and my wave-mate’s “victim” is absolutely terrifying when she begins drowning. To me, it looked like something out of a horror movie. Eli’s take on it was much different: he told our drownee that she’s supposed to look like Han Solo frozen in carbonite. Whoever talks about opera and Star Wars in the same sentence is automatically my hero.

NF Adults Rehearsing 

Director Eli Villanueva leads the adults in a staging rehearsal.

With Eli’s instructions in mind, we put it all together, running through the whole storm scene with music. Since my wave-mate and I are standing at the front, we could watch the entire scene unfolding behind us. The effect is just astonishing. Enraptured as I was, I wouldn’t have minded staying longer, but time was up. Rehearsal ended with a few final announcements.

I signed myself out and walked through the door. As I left, I started remembering all that homework that lay in wait, and all that studying that had to be done. Somehow, though, it no longer looked so bad. I guess the opera pixies hadn’t abandoned me.


Noah’s Flood Rehearsal: It’s All Coming Together

During a field trip last week, I mentioned rehearsal to one of my teachers. She asked me what show I’m doing, and I told her that it’s Noah’s Flood. “By Benjamin Britten?” she asked. “I did that show about 20 years ago!” She went on to tell me about her experience. It’s almost scary to think that in 2033, we’ll be talking about our production like that.

However, I decided to slow down and take it one rehearsal at a time — I mean, we haven’t even started rehearsing in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels yet. Rehearsal #5 took place on Saturday, instead of our usual Sunday. Because of the wicked L.A. traffic, it took a while for all of us to get to East Los Angeles Performing Arts Academy. When almost everyone had arrived, though, we began rehearsal.

There was something new in the building that day: tape markings on the floor to delineate the Cathedral’s stage area. We knew what that meant. It was time to really get down to business. Sure enough, director Eli Villanueva announced that today would be our first stumble-through rehearsal, in which we’d put all the scenes we’d learned in sequence.

Muse and Eli

After some warm-up, we dispersed to our opening positions. All of us enter from different locations, and originally, a small group of us had to run halfway around the stage area to get to our initial positions.  A few injuries later, we found our number reduced to only two. Eli greeted us with the additional happy news that he had made an executive decision: by his decree, we now had to run around the entire stage. When we finally made it to our spots a geologic era later, we ended up gasping instead of singing. I didn’t know that I had signed up for operatic boot camp!  

After Eli worked with us on the physical, assistant conductor Paul Floyd gave us tips for the singing. He told us to really think about the verbs and to energize them. Now, it sounds less like a practiced mantra, and more like a sincere prayer. With all those repeating phrases, it’s easy to simply chant the words, but Paul helped us really find the color and intention in each one.

Katie and Eli

We transitioned from the opening scene to the ark entrance. The kids came downstairs to rehearse this, and since the adult ensemble isn’t in the scene, we got to sit down and watch. What a treat! Playing various types of animals, including birds, cats, and deer, the children paraded out, swooping, prowling, or prancing up the ramp and into the ark. My wavemate and I alternated between happily singing along with the animals and going insane because of the cuteness. By the time the mice came out, we were literally dying.

NF Lions

Luckily, break came next, so we had time to recover. We bonded over Shakespeare, dying oranges, and free verse about cement. As cheesy as it sounds, theater really brings people together and makes them bond over the most random things!

After break, we continued from right where we left off. With our animals in the ark, we proceeded to the flood scene. With all of us together for the first time, the power of the music ballooned us up, infusing the scene with an incredible collective energy. Instead of simply being the manipulator of a fabric strip, I keenly felt my own role in the drama. My wave and I had become a living, breathing character.

Birds

It’s really all coming together now. I can’t believe that we’re already halfway through the program, and only about three weeks away from the performance. And I can see it already—with each rehearsal, we’re also a little closer to 2033, when we’ll be talking on and on about Britten’s centennial year and that amazing production we put together.


Noah’s Flood Rehearsal – Going Overboard

Muse Lee, our favorite high school blogger, has returned for a series on her participation in the Community Opera production of Benjamin Britten's Noah's Flood.  Performances are April 19 and 20 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Early on in Sunday’s Noah’s Flood rehearsal, director Eli pronounced, “We really have to go overboard.”  Whether or not the pun was intended, I’d say that was the theme of the day: testing our limits. The thing is, we had everything in place, and our new job was to turn it up several notches and amplify it—even if that meant completely overdoing it and feeling so embarrassed that we’d never want to face Eli again.

Muse

With this objective in mind, we plunged right into rehearsal, running through the opening scene several times. After carefully observing us, Eli pointed to the open door, through which we could see a distant fence at the edge of the campus. He told us to keep in mind that there would be audience members that far away, and that we had to effectively convey the story to them. Therefore, it had to be bigger, louder, and way past the boundary of ridiculous. We had to shed the “armor of appropriateness” and “really explore what embarrasses you.” We took his words to heart and started translating them into action, elongating our bodies and stretching our arms as much as possible. We had extra motivation since he announced that the first person who touched the ceiling would get a thousand dollars.

Next, as the kids rehearsed their ark entrance, assistant director Heather took the “waves” and “doomed” outside to practice.  Since it was so windy, our fabric strips wouldn’t listen to us, instead flapping every which way and talking back. It was exhausting, but it actually added a splash of realism. Now, during the storm scene, I can truly imagine the wind whipping my wave and my clothes and my hair. And plus, my wavemate and I had fun pretending that our wave was a parachute and that we were going to fly away.

Lions

As we went back inside, my wavemate and I nearly got trampled by the animals, but we narrowly avoided this fate and got to watch the rest of their ark entrance scene. When working with the kids, Eli told them something similar to what he told us: he said that the scene felt a little tentative and that it needed to be bolder. He said to them, “I’m giving you permission to make mistakes.”

Once they had worked on the scene a little more, we waves stepped in and the storm began. With Eli’s words in mind, I threw myself so fully into the motions and the music that I don’t quite remember what happened. All I know is that my limbs are really sore and that, according to my wavemate’s mom, I had quite a lethal facial expression.

Birdy

Together with the animals, we sang our parts, and then slowly exited the stage. However, assistant conductor Paul, who was accompanying us on the piano, didn’t stop playing. For the first time, he kept on going, right to the very last note. There were several moments of silence. Then, we burst into applause.

And that’s how our very last ensemble rehearsal ended. Next week, the principals and the community orchestra will join us, and then we’ll be moving to our actual performance venue, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Each rehearsal is more exciting than the last—who knew that embarrassing yourself can be this fun?


Noah's Flood: Taking The Leap

Muse Lee, our favorite high school blogger, has returned for a series on her participation in the Community Opera production of Benjamin Britten's Noah's Flood. Performances were this past weekend, April 19 and 20 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.  This is her final post in the series.


Tuesday and Wednesday

I’ve been saying the word “almost” a lot: we’re “almost” there, it’s “almost” coming together, etc. During Noah’s Flood rehearsal on Tuesday and Wednesday last week, we finally abandoned “almost” and took that leap.

On Tuesday, we rehearsed the performance with the community choirs and orchestras for the first time at the Cathedral. Both elements added incredible majesty, grandeur, and energy. Still, the performance remained at the “almost” stage.

However, on Wednesday we added four main things: costumes, lights, the LA Opera Orchestra members, and most exciting of all, Maestro James Conlon.  And one that day, two things happened that completely changed the game.

Noah's Flood

The first of these things came in the form of a surprise visitor: a bespectacled man with a close-trimmed beard. Blinking, I whispered to Noah (Yohan Yi), “Is that Christopher Koelsch?!” It really was.  That’s when I really sank in that we were part of something so significant that it called for a visit by LA Opera’s President and CEO. My determination hardened. I would do all I could to help make it a great performance.

For me, that set the tone for the whole day. When the time came for rehearsal to start, we went to the halls flanking the sanctuary to review notes and warm up. As we did, we heard a murmur and applause from inside. Maestro Conlon had arrived.

Noah's Flood

I knew that the second I ran out into the sanctuary for my opening position, I would see him up there on the podium. My nervousness escalated, and the beatings of my heart hurtled to a peak. The thundering opening chords sounded. My running partner and I exchanged a glance; it was our cue.

At that moment, the second amazing thing happened. The moment I took off sprinting, my nervousness immediately converted itself to fear and anger. I ran down the aisle, bursting with desperation, searching everywhere for answers. When I skidded to a halt, it wasn’t me anymore, but at last, my character. For the first time, I carried my voice to the breaking point, singing on the edge of danger.

Noah's Flood

Throughout the program, director Eli Villanueva, assistant conductor Paul Floyd, and assistant director Heather Lipson-Bell have been urging us to realize our intention. Up until that point, it had been make believe. Now, one by one, we were all finding our own meaning in the words and actions.

We bumped through the rest of the opera, costume changes and Maestro Conlon and all. By the end of rehearsal, the only element left to add was an audience, which would come in during Thursday’s final dress rehearsal.

On the first day of tech week, Monday, I don’t think any of us could honestly say we were prepared to perform. By the time we hit Wednesday, we crossed the boundary between “almost” and “finally.” Thursday, Friday, Saturday, here we come. We couldn’t feel any more ready.


Thursday, Friday, and Saturday

At this point, I began reflecting on all parts of my Noah’s Flood experience—the beautiful music, the friendships made with the ensemble members and principals, the number of times we imitated Jamieson Price (Voice of God)—and I keenly felt the fact that it would all be over soon. I knew that it wouldn’t end without a bang: the last three days would be a stunning finale. 

Noah's Flood

The first of these three days, Thursday, was our final dress rehearsal. For the first time, we had a handful of people in the audience. It went smoothly, and the audience loved the performance.

We still hadn’t endured the greatest test, though. On Friday, all of our emotions were at a peak. The stress from tech week had now accumulated, and it now aggravated by opening night nerves. It didn’t help that we were told that two thousand people were coming.

 

Downstairs, assistant director Heather Lipson-Bell led us through our warm-ups and review. Halfway through, Eli came in. He stood up on the platform and began to speak to us. “On Monday,” he admitted, “I was concerned.” He went on to tell us how we had then invested all that we had into the performance, and how it had now evolved into something truly beautiful. He concluded by saying, “Let your bodies and souls reach the heavens, and just do what you know to do.”

Noah's Flood

With his words in mind, we went upstairs to the sanctuary and got into our places. When we saw all the pews swelling with people, our hearts fluttered again. “This is what two thousand people looks like…” someone whispered. Eli’s words, though, repeated in our minds: “Let your bodies and souls reach the heavens. Just do what you know to do.”

And that’s exactly what we did.

Hearing the applause of thousands of people is a frightening, cathartic, overwhelming moment. We glanced around at each other, smiling uncontrollably. We had done it, and we felt fully confident to do it again on Saturday.

Saturday’s routine was the same as Friday’s: we brought our quick-change costumes upstairs, and then went back downstairs to warm up, review, and receive our final pep talk. Eli expressed how proud he was of us, and thanked us for giving our all. For the final time, we went to our opening positions.

LA Opera

Knowing that it would be my last time singing each number, I poured more than I ever had before into the performance. I tapped into my desperation during “Lord Jesus, think on me,” and let loose my fury in the storm scene. At last, we reached the finale. As we sang the soaring, wondrous melody of “What though in solemn silence all,” with the choirs and orchestra triumphantly accompanying us, I gazed out into the audience, and my throat constricted. When I sang the last “Amen” and slowly retreated offstage with the rest of the cast, there was no stopping it anymore. I sank down in the choir pews and wept into my sleeve.

Noah's Flood

The lights went back on, and audience swept us up in warm, rushing applause. We bowed and waved, still in disbelief. Then, when the audience began to disperse, I met up with my wave-mate. We went downstairs to hang up our costumes for the last time.

Muse and Ellie
Muse and her "wave-mate" Ellie after the performance

There were still tears in my eyes as we went down the stairs and said goodbye to all the staff and ensemble members. That night, before and after, there were many incredible moments, but I think it’s best to end by relating a single incident.

Over the course of the program, I had become friends with a young man with an intellectual disability. He was always cheerful and bubbly, and whenever he saw anyone, he would break into a huge smile. That night, as I spoke with my wave-mate through tears, he walked in and noticed me. For a moment, he watched uncertainly. Then, he stepped forward and tightly wrapped his arms around me for a long embrace. When he finally pulled away, I looked up. To my surprise, there were now tears gathered in his eyes as well. Struggling not to cry, he hugged me and my wave-mate one more time, and shakily said goodbye. “Next year,” I managed to reply. He nodded, bravely smiled, and then slowly walked away.

I’ve covered this Community Opera program over nine blog posts. However, I think describing this one moment makes all of them unnecessary.

Noah's Flood


Opera Camp - "Art as Spiritual Resistance"

Opera Camp 2013 opened early on July 29 with an orientation in the rehearsal rooms of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The Senior Director of Education and Community Engagement, Dr. Stacy Brightman, introduced the two operas we would be performing, Brundibár and Friedl. Brundibár, the story of two children’s victory over an evil organ grinder, was written by Czech composer Hans Krása on the eve of World War II. Soon after writing the opera, Krása was transported to the Terezín concentration camp, and there, he reconstructed the score. The children in the camp performed Brundibár fifty-five times. Most of them, along with Krása, were later killed in the camps.

Friedl was composed by our director, Eli Villanueva, with a libretto by movement director Leslie Stevens. It is the story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who secretly taught art to the children in Terezín. Before she was killed in Auschwitz-Birkenau, she hid away the children’s drawings in a suitcase, ensuring that at least their art would survive. Dr. Brightman concluded, “Their art was spiritual resistance. It was their way of retaining their humanity when the Nazis tried to strip it away.”  We knew what she meant: our performances weren’t just shows we were putting on. They were fulfillments of our duties as fellow artists.

Music_rehearsal

After the orientation, we kicked off camp with a movement session and music rehearsals. We learned the stirring, haunting Lullaby, sung by all the children of the village to drown out the songs of the titular organ grinder. What’s so unique and poignant about the Lullaby is that it’s a reversal of roles. While parents usually sing lullabies to their children, this Lullaby is sung by children to their mothers.

While the younger campers went for a scavenger hunt at the Music Center, we teens stayed back to begin rehearsing Friedl. Though some parts were tricky, the melodies and harmonies sounded gorgeous. During lunch, we started getting to know each other. It’s just wonderful hanging out and working with fellow music lovers my age—and at my favorite place on Earth, to boot!

Muse in Friedl

Dr. Brightman spoke to us again after lunch, giving us more historical background. We discussed the fact that, in Friedl, we play actual historical people, and therefore we have a responsibility to them and their memory. “If we don’t tell the story, it makes it possible to happen again,” Dr. Brightman reminded us. After more rehearsals, we headed home to rest and review.

On Day 2, we went deeper into the previous day’s scenes and moved further into the music of Brundibár. Then, like the first day, we split up. The younger children went with Senior Director of Production, Rupert Hemmings, for a backstage tour of the Dorothy Chandler, while we teens rehearsed Friedl.

Bkstg_Tour

During that rehearsal, Eli conducted a very memorable exercise. To help Maddie (our Friedl) make her spoken lines more organic and natural, he had her try to sing them, then speak them as recitative. As an example, he treated us to an impromptu performance of Count Almaviva’s recitative from The Marriage of Figaro “Che imbarazzo è mai questo.” That was one of the highlights of camp so far!

As we went further into Friedl, though, the mood got more serious. As I listened to the blithe, cheery singing of the principals, my heart broke to think that so many of the lively, creative children depicted in the opera were silenced in the camps. It strengthened my resolve to do what Dr. Brightman had told us to do: honor their memory by passing on their story.

Staging

Lunch and a Brundibár staging rehearsal ended the second day of camp. In these two days of rehearsal, I’ve realized that it’s not like last year for me: like I said, as a complete singing newbie, it had been all about struggling to read the music or fighting to hit the right note. This year, though, I’m actually listening to the music, stepping back and hearing what it’s trying to say. I understand we have a responsibility as artists to do this, and act as ambassadors for history through art. And now, in Opera Camp 2013, I feel ready to take on this challenge.


Opera Camp: Brundibár Will Never Die

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 third post in the series.

 

Rehearsal on Monday marked the beginning of the second, and final, week of Opera Camp. At the beginning of the week, it was little scary to think that on Saturday, the curtain would be going up on our performance. We knew that we had some serious work to do.

Dancing

On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, we started to really piece together the production. Eventually, we began to bump-through rehearsals of Brundibár. Director Eli Villanueva and Movement Director Leslie Stevens constantly reminded us to engage our expressions and our bodies to the fullest, to the point of cartoonish exaggeration. Sometimes, though, we ensemble members got a little lazy; while the principals sang, we stopped investing full focus and power into the performance. Leslie reminded us that none of the characters have status unless we give it to them. Everything is built around our reactions. “The world is created by you guys,” she said. “Otherwise, the story doesn’t get told.”

Muse swooning 

In Friedl rehearsals, too, we were on our feet blocking from the beginning of the week. A depiction of the art classes taught by Friedl Dicker-Brandeis in Terezín, Friedl is as different from Brundibár as you can get. The reflective, realistic Friedl is a refreshing contrast with—and complement to—the splashy, stylized world of Brundibár. With a small cast consisting of only the teens, Friedl is strikingly intimate and personal. The opera itself is all about contrasts, too. The emotions expressed in the piece range from liberating joy to fear of death; the characters experience each within, and in spite of, the other. As the character Lilly sings, “With black, is always white/So I know from darkness, I’m sailing into light.”

Though Friedl and Brundibár rehearsals required a lot of energy, that doesn’t mean Opera Camp was all work and study these past few days—during every rehearsal break, the kids took over the piano and conducted some rocking sing-along sessions.

Lunchtime

After our rehearsal on Wednesday afternoon, we said goodbye to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and on Thursday morning, we were at our performance venue, Barnsdall Gallery Theater, for the first time. We started out with warm-ups onstage, where the set was already in place, and we began to get acquainted with the new space. After our warm-ups, we ran through several scenes in Brundibár and Friedl. It was a little difficult adjusting to the dimensions of the stage, but we started to get used to it. Though we have some aspects to work on, such as diction and breathing, we still have one more day.

Muse on stage

At the end of Thursday’s rehearsal, we had a special guest, one whom we had been looking forward to meeting from the very beginning: Ela Weissberger, Terezín survivor. She had sung the role of the Cat in all fifty-five performances of Brundibár in the camp. In the ten minutes we had with her, Mrs. Weissberger spoke to us for a while. Then, with Little Joe and Annette joining hands with her, we all sang the Victory March Finale, we in English and she in the original Czech.

Ela with Campers

As we marched alongside Mrs. Weissberger, my eyes welled up. For the first time, I keenly felt the triumph expressed in the music. Mrs. Weissberger had explained to us that when almost all of her cast-mates were sent to the gas chambers, she thought Brundibár had died with them. To her, we are all an avowal that Brundibár will never die.


Opera Camp: “Remember Me and My Friends”

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.

Ela and Stacy

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.

Ela's painting

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.”

Ela with 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.

Brundibar cheese

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 Cats

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.”

Ela during performance

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.

Muse and Ellie

 


Welcome to Jonah and the Whale

Our favorite high school blogger, Muse Lee, returns to LA Opera's blog to talk about her experience with our Community Opera Program.  This year we are presenting the world premiere production of Jonah and the Whale by Jack Perla and Velina Hasu Houston.

To me, LA Opera’s Community Opera program means many things. However, now that I’m returning to participate a second time, one memory stands out: the moment that we finally rehearsed in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Just standing in the Cathedral filled us with a sense of mystery, urgency, and wonder. The singing transformed from practiced mantras to spontaneous outbursts, and the movements sprang not from conscious decision, but from an inner compulsion.

Cathedral Opera

At the time, I didn’t quite realize the beauty of creating art in a holy place. However, entering my second year in the program, I’m starting to realize the true significance of the Community Opera program.

Community Opera is LA Opera’s annual project open to the entire community: children and adults, amateurs and professionals. After two months of rehearsal, participants join more than four hundred chorus and orchestra members at the Cathedral to perform an opera.

Orientation for Community Opera 2014 took place last Sunday. As I arrived in the room, I saw familiar faces everywhere. All my friends from last year’s program and Opera Camp were there, and they were just as excited as I was. We instantly began rehashing memories and belting out tunes from the operas we had done together. The moment our antics earned a fondly exasperated look from our director, Eli Villanueva, it was as if no time had passed at all.

Cathedral Opera

The Senior Director of Education and Community Engagement, Stacy Brightman, and our directors, Eli Villanueva and Leslie Stevens, gave us overviews of the program and led us through some of the choreography. We also learned about what we’d be performing: the world premiere of Jonah and the Whale. Jonah and the Whale is the story of a prophet fleeing from the Lord. As he escapes by sea, God sends a giant fish to swallow him. Inside the belly of the whale, Jonah learns the error of his ways and repents, placing all of his faith in God’s will. As the ensemble, we will play waves, sea creatures, sailors, and Ninevites in the story.

To sum up the program, Dr. Brightman stated, “Art belongs to everybody. Opera certainly belongs to everybody. And this opera house belongs to everybody.”

As we laughed, leapt, and danced for the next hour of orientation, I reflected back on my Cathedral experience and thought about Dr. Brightman’s words. I’m beginning to understand what she meant. Only now do I realize why in the Cathedral, everything fell so naturally into place. It’s because art itself is an act of faith. Art fills us and lifts us up. Art brings the community together, because though it may not have all the answers, it shows us that others have the same questions. And making artistic choices, devoting ourselves to art, and sharing it with the community are in themselves a leap of faith.