Opera Tells of Pain and Victory

The youth production, which was performed in Nazi camps, resonated with its director.

by Julie Stoiber
As printed in The Philadelphia Inquirer 3/30/03
Brundibar

The comic French opera was well under way, the main roles cast, the theater booked. Then the e-mail arrived, upending director Karen Saillant Bygott’s plans for a lighthearted spring.

The message, from the father of a girl who had sung in another of Bygott’s productions, urged her to look at a newspaper article about a children’s opera being staged in New York.

It was called Brundibar, and Bygott was overcome as she absorbed the chilling details of how the opera came to be – and the fate of the children who made it famous. “I couldn’t stop crying,” she said.

By the end of that day in mid-February, she had abandoned French romance and thrown herself into Brundibar, which will be performed from May 2 through 4 at Allens Lane Art Center in the Mount Airy section of the city.

Written in 1938 by Czech composer Hans Krasa, Brundibar tells the story of Annette and Little Joe, a brother and sister desperate to get money for milk for their sick mother. They try singing for coins in the town square, but Brundibar, the evil organ grinder, drowns them out.

With the help of a dog, a cat and a sparrow, Annette and Little Joe assemble all the children in the town in a chorus louder than Brundibar’s, and by the end of the day a gleeful Little Joe has a hatful of coins. Brundibar steals the money, but the children overpower him, and the opera concludes with their victory song.

Sixty years ago, that victory song was sung by the children of Terezin, a Nazi concentration camp northwest of Prague. They performed Brundibar 55 times, most often in a barracks, but for special occasions in a gymnasium. Once, their audience was a visiting committee of the International Red Cross. They also performed it for a Nazi propaganda film intended to show the rich life of Terezin inmates.

And that was their final curtain call: Most of the cast members, the opera’s composer, and thousands of other children and adults in Terezin were sent to the gas chambers.

“It’s so overwhelming,” Bygott said.

Brundibar has been staged all over the world, in productions large and small. The one in Mount Airy will feature 40 children, ages 6 to 14, from across Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey.

With each revival of Brundibar, the phone rings in the Tappan, N.Y., home of Ela Stein Weissberger.

Only 100 of Terezin’s 15,000 children survived, and she was one of them. Now 72, she is famous as the girl who played the cat in Brundibar.

“When I’m thinking about it, I’m getting goose bumps,” Weissberger said in a telephone interview. “I can’t believe this little opera is performed in the United States and I’m free like a butterfly.”

Terezin was a collection point for many composers, musicians and artists. One of the inmates was a teacher, Rudy Freudenfeld, whose father ran an orphanage in Prague where Brundibar had been performed twice. Freudenfeld arrived at Terezin with the piano score from the opera hidden in his suitcase.

Krasa, its composer, was already in the camp, and together they got permission from the Nazi guards to stage the opera. Freudenfeld conducted auditions.

“When it came my turn, somehow after I sang la-la-la he said, ‘You be the cat,’ and from that moment, he called me Kitty,” Weissberger remembers. “I wore my sister’s ski pants and my mother’s sweater.”

Freudenfeld was in forced labor at a mine, and many nights would arrive for rehearsal directly from work. “Not even a chance to wash his face,” Weissberger said. “He was for me, and probably for many other kids, a god.”

A lullaby in Brundibar still makes Weissberger cry. In the Mount Airy production, that lullaby is the only song that will be sung in the original Czech. Bygott, a soprano, sang it one night recently for visitors in the third-floor studio of her Center City home. “Beautiful,” said Laraine Winter when the song ended. “It’ll be charming.”

Winter’s son, Samuel, 14, has the role of the dog in Brundibar, his bark based on observations of the family mutt, Socrates.

He was one of the last actors to be cast. The rehearsal schedule will be intense. For an opera such as this, Bygott would like six months to prepare, but she came late to Brundibar and is fervent about making it happen.

“It’s given me a chance to express my own grief as I cry for these children,” she said.

The tears roll as Bygott talks about the source of that grief. Four years ago, she was attacked in front of her Lombard Street home by a man she’d chastised for urinating in a trash container. Her husband, Bernie, her childhood sweetheart, wrestled the man to the ground and held him until police came. Then Bernie collapsed in cardiac arrest. By the time medics revived him, Bernie was in a coma from which he would never recover.

For 16 months Bygott and her sons Bernard and Christian kept Bernie on a hospital bed in their living room, devoting themselves to his care. He died in June 2000.

“Just like the children in Terezin, we’re going through our own journey after a tragedy,” Bygott said.

When Bygott felt the children of Terezin helping her cope with her own devastation, she asked Christian, 20, a singer, to assist with casting in hopes that he, too, would benefit.

“We’re all trying to heal from things, aren’t we?” Bygott said. “Life is just that way.”