Fifty plus children are lined up onstage, holding hands and singing a victory march at the end of the children’s opera Brundibár as part of LA Opera’s Opera Camp. At the center, holding hands and singing with the same energy as the children, is Holocaust survivor Ela Weissberger. Before her passing last month, she traveled around the world to attend nearly every performance of Brundibár. Her story has been an inspiration and a driving force behind Opera Camp.
Opera Camp has always been more than just a way to introduce young people to music. “We want our students to understand their profound responsibility as young artists to dig in, do the research and hard work, and try to be worthy of the stories they are telling,” said Stacy Brightman, Vice President, Education and Community Engagement. “We want them to understand that as story-tellers, they have an extraordinary power.”
Brundibár was chosen for Opera Camp because it is a beautifully written and delightful opera. But the story of the opera’s creation, and the young girl who played the Cat, is exceptional.
When she was 11 years old, Weissberger played the role of the Cat in 55 performances of Brundibár. Those performances took place in the concentration camp Terezín, where she was sent with her family during the Holocaust. Terezín was a “model” concentration camp, used by the Nazis to show the outside world how humanely prisoners were supposedly being treated. Most prisoners were there for a short time, before being sent on to Auschwitz or other death camps.
The camp housed many Jewish artists and intellectuals, among them Hans Krása, composer of the children’s opera Brundibár. He brought the score with him when he was transported to the camp and Brundibár premiered in Terezín in 1943. The opera tells the story of a brother and sister who need to earn money to buy milk for their sick mother but are stopped by an evil organ grinder named Brundibár, who happens to have a prominent black mustache. The brother and sister, along with a cat, a dog, a sparrow and other children, eventually drive the organ grinder away with joyful music of their own.
Weissberger often spoke about how art uplifted the spirits of those in the camps and served a form of “spiritual resistance”. Weissberger’s story’s of the power of art in the camps, and of her art teacher , inspired the short opera Friedl, commissioned by LA Opera as a prelude to Brundibár.
Friedl librettist Leslie Stevens said, “Ela shared with me memories of her childhood friends and her teacher at Terezín – that were integral to the story.” Weissberger was committed to honoring the memory of her friends who did not survive the camps by sharing their stories.
Brundibár itself may not have survived without her. Weissberger traveled to nearly every performance of Brundibár, including those at LA Opera’s Opera Camp. She would speak to the campers before the performances, telling them about her life in Terezín. Her presence and her words kept the story alive for new generations, who may have had little personal connection to the Holocaust.
“Listening to Ela’s story at thirteen years old imbued me with a new sense of purpose,” said Elyse Johnson, a past camper. “I had to tell her story… all of camp Terezín’s story.”
Sophie Strobel, who played the Cat during Opera Camp in 2015, said, “If anyone had a reason to be bitter and angry, it would’ve been her. Instead she was filled with joy and life and a desire to teach us all about what she went through.”
Each time she visited, after sharing her stories, Weissberger would always hug each child. At the end of the performance, she would step onstage, hold hands and sing the final victory march from the opera together with the children. Her voice moved the campers and the LA Opera staff, including James Conlon.
“Ela was one of the greatest inspirational individuals that I have known,” said Conlon.
Ela Weissberger’s presence will be deeply missed, but her spirit and her stories will live on in the hearts of everyone she touched.LA Opera is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the greater good.