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Opera Camp: Summer on Stage

Children’s opera was performed in World War II transit camp

Elizabeth Scher and her friends eat pizza and drink sodas, laughing their way through their lunch hour. The group of 10- to 14-year-olds look no different from other summer campers staying out of the sun on August afternoons.

But when Elizabeth and her friends finish their lunch, they don’t head to the pool or the soccer field; they return to the Washington National Opera’s rehearsal studios to practice their arias and cantatas in preparation for performances at the Round House Theater Bethesda and The Kennedy Center.

Elizabeth, a rising sophomore at the Bullis School and a Potomac resident, is among 30 students taking part in the Opera Camp for Kids, which links young singers with the Washington National Opera’s professional staff to produce a children’s opera each summer.

STUDENTS AUDITION to take part in the program and the participants rehearse for more than four hours each day, learning the music and blocking in less than a month.

“Opera is just a great form of singing. It’s so amazing how someone can project — carry their voice — without a microphone,” said Elizabeth, who has participated in musical theater since she was seven, but like most of the opera campers, had no exposure to the world of opera before this summer. “The whole technique is completely different [from musical theater]. You have to be more cautious about the way you treat your voice.”

Such lessons are central to the 11-year-old opera camp program, which aims to introduce young people to opera and operatic voice technique without pushing them into musical careers.

“When people hear opera camp they think we’re trying to turn them into little 10-year-old divas with big huge vibratos … and we’re not,” said David Simmons, musical director of this year’s show.

Rather, the camp tries to teach good vocal technique — breath support, diction, phrasing, and “placing” one’s voice rather than belting from the chest as in musical theater — and teach the discipline and teamwork that go into producing a show. On the first day, camp instructors talk about the fact that the word “opera” is the middle of the word “cooperation.”

“If one of these kids goes on to an opera career that’s a lot,” Simmons said, but the camp has the potential to “help a new generation of children feel comfortable with opera.”

THIS YEAR’S show is “Brundibar,” a children’s opera written by Czech composer Hans Krasa during World War II and first performed in Terezin, a ghetto and transit camp on the route to Auschwitz.

The opera follows two young children trying to earn money for their sick mother. The children decide to perform songs in the public square, but are antagonized by the title character, an organ grinder. The children befriend a bird, a cat and a dog, who help them defeat the villain.

On the surface, the story is easy to understand and the shows are appropriate for very young children, organizers said. But from the first performances “Brundibar’s” narrative took on a second layer of meaning: for the Jews in Terezin, the animals and children overcoming the organ grinder came to represent the Allies overcoming Hitler.

“The Nazis didn’t seem to realize the irony of it. The very last song is the kids singing ‘We’ve won a victory over tyranny,’” Simmons said. “They’re talking about the animals helping them overcome the organ grinder. But to the Jews they’re singing about [overcoming Nazi oppression].”

Krasa wrote the opera in Czech in 1938 and was encamped in 1943. He was not able to bring the opera into the camp but another man did later that year. The Nazis forced children in the camp to learn the opera in German and then had the children perform the opera for inspectors from the International Red Cross — a ruse designed to demonstrate that the Jewish captives were being treated humanely.

In fact, most of the prisoners at Terezin went on to die at Auschwitz. Krasa was gassed in 1944; of more than 15,000 Jews who passed through Terezin, fewer than 100 survived.

One survivor was Ela Weissberger, who performed in the original “Brundibar.” Weissberger will spend a day with the campers this week and will speak before each of the “Brundibar” performances.

THE STUDENTS have also visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and most of them understand the serious overtones of the lighthearted work, said director Cindy Oxberry.

At the same time a day at opera camp is both a lot of work and a lot of fun.

Oxberry — who is an assistant director for the Washington National Opera’s main stage productions — leads the children through blocking a chase scene, clearing out chairs and moving in a tight circle. She sometimes stands on a chair and often points to a cardboard sign hanging from the stage directors’ table that says “Focus.”

“They have to understand that there’s many people who make this happen for them and that they are part of the big picture of opera,” Oxberry said. “That means if all these people are doing their part they must practice the music and practice the staging.”

Oxberry and Simmons agreed that a few fine points notwithstanding the children’s opera is substantively the same as professional productions, with sophisticated technical design, a full slate of directors and designers, and long rehearsals.

Elizabeth has had no trouble adapting.

“She’s very responsible. I have given her a lot of special responsibilities in the show,” Oxberry said. “She’s very smart, she’s crafty.”

Children bring less technical and life experience to their roles, but otherwise are pretty much the same as adult performers.

“Sometimes I say, ‘God the children behave better than the adults. Sometimes the adults behave like children,” Oxberry said.