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Learning History through Opera

Great Falls girl participating in opera camp

During the summer, going to camp is not an uncommon thing for a child to do: learn about the great outdoors, pick up some new skills, make some new friends.

Only a handful of children would ever expect to learn opera during their summer vacation.

Great Falls resident and Cooper Middle School student Lauren Bailey is one of the few, participating in a month-long opera camp sponsored by the Washington National Opera which will conclude this weekend with performances of "Brundibar," an opera written during World War II for children in ghettos.

"The opera was written to be performed by children in a ghetto when the Health Department came to inspect where they were living," Bailey said. "It was supposed to make it look like a nice place to live, that's why everything was painted up and they planted lots of flowers."

As part of their opera camp experience, she and the other 30 students spent a day at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, learning about what life was like for children in Hitler's Germany.

"We saw a video of one of the first performances of the play," she said. "It helped us see what actually happened. The play was supposed to symbolize what was going on. There's an organ grinder in the play and he was supposed to be like Hitler, he was mean to the kids all the time."

Bailey plays a sparrow in the play, one of three animals that help the two main characters, a brother and sister, make money to buy bread and milk for their sick mother. The animals, she said, represent the Allied nations during the war.

"It was cool to see how everything fit together," she said. "You see how hard it was for them."

STUDENTS FROM Washington, Virginia and Maryland have had the chance to study opera in this camp for the past 11 years, said Caryn Fraim, the education and community programs manager at the National Opera.

"They learn a complete opera in English," she said. "'Brundibar' was originally written in Czech and they'll sing one song in the original language."

The students are also taking yoga, she said. "It's a relaxation technique, it helps them chill out from all the stress," Fraim said. "There's also some lessons on the history of opera and background on the piece they're performing."

Perhaps the most important information they'll receive is what they learn from Ela Weissberger, a Holocaust survivor who was one of the children who performed the play when it was written.

"She will also speak before each performance in addition to having a session with the students," Fraim said. "This play was performed 55 times during the war. She travels to different productions around the country, telling of her experience," she said.

Students had to audition to participate in the camp, singing two songs for a panel of judges.

"We got everything from 'Happy Birthday' to 'The Star Spangled Banner'," she said. "We just wanted to see a desire to learn. Some of the children have a choral background, so they'll sing Broadway tunes, but some sing church hymns too."

This is the fourth time Brundibar has been performed by the opera camp, she said. "This piece lends itself well to children's opera and there's such a rich historical context," she said.

It is the first time David Simmons has been the musical director for the production with the opera camp.

"I work with a lot of different programs during the year, including one where kids get to write their own operas," he said. "This is a really wonderful program."

The story is a powerful one for the children to learn, Simmons said, because of the stark contrast between their lives and the ones they portray on-stage.

"When Brundibar was originally performed, it was one of the few times that the children in the camps were allowed to sing and act. It gave them hope," Simmons said. "The whole story is about hopefulness."

During the course of the camp, there have been several conversations about tolerance and hatred, issues that dominated the Holocaust and remain powerful in the modern world, he said.

"It's a lot to take in and we try not to overwhelm the kids but they're doing really well," he said.

FOR KEVIN ADAMS, this summer's production gave him the opportunity to revisit a favorite project with a new outlook.

"This will be a new production of Brundibar," he said. As the designer of the original set when the camp was first conducted in 1995, he decided it was time to create a new world in which the children told the story.

"Most of the story takes place in a fantasy world that the children go into to remember their life before being put in the ghetto," he said. "It's a really tragic story so I wanted to balance it out and make the fantasy world as spectacular as possible."

The pastry shop has been built to look like a golden loaf of bread, the ice cream store built in the shape of an ice cream cone and the milk shop looks like a giant can of milk, Adams said.

"When all three are opened up you can see everything inside, and it's all very shiny. I tried to take it to the same degree in one direction as we're asking the audience to go in the other direction," Adams said, hoping the startling contrast between the horrible reality and the dream-like fantasy world of the children will touch the audience.

"It's an amazing story about how they survive," he said. "I can never comprehend what they had to deal with in the ghettos but I'm hoping to touch on how far they had to go in the fantasy world to make it through the day."

There will be a scrim behind the three shops, a lightweight, semi-translucent piece of fabric on which a brick wall scene will be painted. Depending on how the scrim is lit, the audience will see either a cold, hard wall or the far-off outline of a city outside the camp.

"That allows us to show the children remembering their old lives and hometowns," Adams said.

The young actors and actresses walk by his workspace on their way to practice every day and have been popping their heads in his door to watch the sets being built.

"They're all very excited about the play," he said. "They're aware of the importance of responsibility and I love that the props I'm making are helping to tell the story."