It’s not exactly the most obvious of pairings, but the collaboration between LA Opera and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust has been going strong for ten years.
It began when the students participating in LA Opera’s annual summer Opera Camp were gearing up for a production of Hans Krása’s Brundibár, an opera first performed in 1942 by children at the Jewish orphanage in Nazi-occupied Prague, and notably produced at Theresienstadt in 1943 by children imprisoned there, most of whom were subsequently murdered in Auschwitz.
“Opera Camp reached out to us,” says Jordanna Gessler, LAMOTH’s Vice President of Education and Exhibits. “They wanted to make sure that the counselors had all the right information to properly teach the students the story and its historical context, to bring history to life and to honor the memory of those murdered. It expanded from there.”
A shot from Opera Camp's 2019 visit to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.
Each summer, Opera Camp uses music and drama to inspire its young participants to take a close look at themes of social injustice. The students prepare, rehearse and perform operas that open up discussions about the treatment of European Jews in the era of Brundibár, the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during the same period, or the American civil rights movement during the 1960s. Most years, Opera Camp takes its participants on field trips to LAMOTH, where they can make connections between history and the present day in ways far more powerful than they ever could in a classroom.
It’s a partnership that works both ways. LAMOTH has its own set of active theater and arts workshops for kids. “We call on each other as specialists in our fields,” says Jordanna. "In our theater program, students interview Holocaust survivors and write theater pieces about what they’ve learned. We have LA Opera staff come in and talk about the ways theater and music can expand and humanize everything that they want to express. It's been a really enriching experience."
This summer, of course, everything is different. Because of the pandemic, both organizations have had to shift gears to move their summer programs online. “But partnership is one of our core values,” says Stacy Brightman, LA Opera’s Vice President of Connects, “and that hasn’t changed this year one bit.” LAO Connects’ Resident Stage Director Eli Villanueva (click here to learn more about him) is also a guest artist at LAMOTH this summer. And in the absence of field trips, LAMOTH created opportunities for this year’s Opera Camp participants to communicate directly with Holocaust survivor Eva Nathanson via Zoom meetings.
Opera Camp on a Zoom call with Holocaust survivor Eva Nathanson.
“That was amazing,” Jordanna recalls. “Because we were having the workshop online, as Eva spoke to the students, they could express their reactions via the chat feature. There was a steady stream of consciousness and emotion in this chat, as the students connected with her, pouring out message of hope and beauty. It was such an inspiration. I don’t think it could ever have happened the same way in person.”
As an opera lover herself, ever since she saw Rigoletto in her native Hungary at the age of six, perhaps Eva Nathanson felt a special connection to the Opera Camp students. “I thought they were so enlightened and bright,” she says, “and they had amazing questions. Art and music have always helped us understand each other. I want the world to be a place where people don't have to worry about being harmed by bigots, just because of something they have no control over. I hope that the kids got that out of my talk with them. I would like them to understand that we all have something to contribute to society. As long as we understand and care for each other, the world will be a better place.”
Opera campers on a 2019 tour of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.
Eva’s story will serve as an inspiration for one of the “quilt pieces” for this summer’s Opera Camp presentation, Song of Los Angeles.
In 2020, more than ever, young people who might be scared or anxious about the world need to find ways to sort through their experiences. “As a society, we need to remind ourselves why art is important, why opera is important, why museums are important,” says Jordanna. “It's important for the kids to see how art is a powerful tool for reflection, inspiration and feeling.”
Want to learn more about Opera Camp? Click here.