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Brundibar children's opera

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Concentration camp survivor brings music of the Holocaust to Stockton

Oct 5, 2015

Ela Weissberger was 13 when she first sang the role of a cat in a children's opera in the Terezin concentration camp in 1943. This week Weissberger will take the stage at University of the Pacific to reprise one of the songs from the opera together with Pacific opera students and two local groups.

As part of a Conservatory of Music arts and education program, 1,400 San Joaquin County schoolchildren will attend two free performances of "Brundibár." The conservatory's Music Education Department provided a study guide, books and notes to teachers so that the schoolchildren will have the opportunity before the performance to learn about the opera and the significance it has to the Holocaust.

A public performance of "Brundibár," which celebrates the triumph of the helpless over tyranny and the transformative power of art, will take place at 2 p.m. Oct. 10 at Faye Spanos Concert Hall on Pacific's Stockton campus. It will be performed with its companion play by Tony Kushner, "But the Giraffe," an account of how the opera's score was smuggled into Terezin. The performance is free.

Hans Krása, the Czech composer who wrote "Brundibár," was among scores of outstanding musicians, professors, writers and actors deported to Terezin, which the Nazis called Theresienstadt. According to the U.S. Holocaust Museum's Holocaust Encyclopedia, the deportations were "part of the Nazi strategy of deception ... cynically described as a 'spa town.'" In fact, 90,000 of the approximately 140,000 Jews transferred to Terezin were deported to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. Roughly 33,000 died in Terezin itself. Krása was killed at Auschwitz.

"This is an extraordinary story and having a surviving member of the original cast here to share her time with us is a tremendous opportunity for our community," said James Haffner, professor of opera, stage director for the performance, and director of the Pacific Opera Theatre.

"Brundibár" offered a semblance of normalcy for Weissberger after she was sent to Terezin in 1942. The opera was performed 55 times at Terezin as part of a Nazi propaganda effort.

Weissberger told National Public Radio and other interviewers that the Nazis, not recognizing that the villain in the opera represented Adolph Hitler, included a performance from "Brundibár" in the propaganda film, "Hitler Gives the Jews a Town."

Today Weissberger travels around the world talking about the Holocaust and the importance of "Brundibár."

The Conservatory of Music last performed "Brundibár" in 2008, also under Haffner's direction. Haffner said the experience left a lasting impression on those involved.

In a collaboration with Temple Israel Stockton, the Holocaust Memorial Butterfly Project will be on display in the Faye Spanos Concert Hall during the performance and Weissberger will visit Temple Israel to speak with Hebrew School students about her experiences. She will also meet with Pacific students and community members during a Holocaust Studies talk at 4 p.m. Friday, Oct. 9, at the Bechtel International Center on the Stockton campus.

The Cat with the Yellow StarAt the end of the Oct. 10 performance, Weissberger will join the Pacific Opera Theater students and members of the Stockton Youth Chorale and Harmony Stockton in singing the "Victory Song" from the opera.

The performance will be followed by a reception and book signing by Weissberger at the Vereschagin Alumni House. Her book, "The Cat with the Yellow Star: Coming of Age in Terezin," is the story of her life.

Media contact:

Keith Michaud | 209.946.3275 (office) | 209.470.3206 (cell) | kmichaud@pacific.edu