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Holocaust Remembrance through Opera and Education
Evan Wildstein, Manager of Education and Adult Learning Programs, OPERA America
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EducationLink4/21/2008

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Composers have paid tribute to significant people and events through their operas, and companies have produced the works to educate audiences about history while entertaining them. Various works include John Adams’s Nixon in China, Adolphus Hailstork’s Rise for Freedom: The John P. Parker Story, Philip Glass’s Appomattox and Virgil Thompson’s The Mother of Us All. Other topics recent works have focused on are World War II composers and victims of the Holocaust.

During World War II and the Holocaust, the arts were diminished. Two composers who died in the early 1940s were Viktor Ullmann and Alexander Zemlinsky. During the Holocaust, both of their artistic lives were halted, and while Zemlinksy was able to flee to New York with his family, Ullmann was interned at the Terezin concentration camp. While their compositions might have been lost in time for a short while, the recent efforts of Los Angeles Opera has given their operas a new life. Through the Recovered Voices initiative, Los Angeles Opera has revived the works of composers affected by the Nazis. This second season of the program focused on Ullmann's The Broken Jug and Zemlinsky's The Dwarf. Regarding the company's commitment to this initiative, Music Director James Conlon said, "It is one of my personal goals to bring these operas to our public to see and hear. This is music, long buried, that the world must hear." Four performances of these one-act operas were given in February and March, and the program will continue next season with Walter Braunfels's Die Vögel.

Although Ullmann met his end in a concentration camp, his time in Terezin was shared with another composer, Hans Krása. Krása's youth opera, Brundibár, has a compelling story in relation to Terezin. He created the work a few years prior to being interned in 1942, and it premiered there in September 1943. The following June, the opera was performed during a visit from the Red Cross. The organization had visited the camp in response to rumors of genocide, which were dispelled after their falsely positive experience at the camp. Through a partnership with many organizations, including Dayton Opera, the Victoria Theatre's production of Brundibár promoted a positive message to its participants — the story tells of children uniting to reach a goal: defeating the character Brundibár in order to obtain milk with which to save their mother. Luke Dennis, education and outreach manager at The Victoria Theatre, worked with the performers throughout the show's entire process. "Brundibár resonates for me because its amazing history crystallizes my belief in the redemptive powers of art. I believe art creates communities, I believe art can provide solace and create hope and I believe sensibilities can be challenged through the discourse good art can create. Brundibár asks us to [as Margaret Mead said] 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.' " says Dennis. The production of Brundibár was part of a larger project, Through the Eyes of a Child, which included another work called My Heart in a Suitcase — the memoir of a 12-year-old girl and her experience with the Kindertransport (a rescue effort which brought thousands of refugee Jewish children to Great Britain from Nazi Germany between 1938 and 1940).

Another production of Brundibár was presented by Commonwealth Opera (Florence, MA); four performances were held on two college campuses in March, in partnership with the Hatikvah Holocaust Education Center. The song cycle I Never Saw Another Butterfly, based on poems written by children who were being held in Terezin, was a part of select performances.

Opera Company of Brooklyn will present a workshop performance of Adam Silverman's new opera, Korczak's Orphans, on May 3. This opera tells the story of Janusz Korczak, a doctor and author who sacrificed his life for the children he cared for in an orphanage. When soldiers came to the orphanage in August 1942 to gather the children and take them to a camp, Korczak refused the freedom he was offered and chose to stay with the children. Although no record exists of his death, it is commonly thought that Korczak perished with his children at Treblinka, an extermination camp in Poland. The workshop will be hosted by the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City.

This year, Holocaust Remembrance Day will be observed on May 2 in the U.S., while in Israel it will fall on May 1. In 2006, the United Nations designated January 27 as the international date to commemorate the victims of Nazi oppression. Irrespective of the date, country or method of recognition, remembrance of the Holocaust continues to be observed by many people throughout the world. The efforts made by opera companies, museums and educators of all walks should be not only be acknowledged, but commended.

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