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Diva School

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The drab basement rehearsal room suddenly comes to life when camp counselor Paul Edson calls the 28 fidgety performers to attention with a few shrill chords on the piano.

The young singers stiffen like little soldiers in a line and unleash the scales in unison.

"Mommy made me mash my M&M's. Mommy made me mash my M&M's," they sing, climbing up the notes as only sopranos can. Edson plucks the piano keys faster and faster, telling them to "keep it one, keep it together" as the children fill the room with their angelic chorus.

While their peers vacation at the beach, master video games, or languish through the final weeks of summer break, these young people have come to learn about vocal intonation, stage production, and a famous libretto by a Czechoslovakian composer.

This is Opera Camp, four weeks of performance training and opera study co-sponsored by the Washington Opera and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The cost of this training is $500. But most of the campers, who all live in the Washington metropolitan area, received a partial or full scholarship.

Organizers of the music program--this is its first year--hope a daily singing regimen at a major arts center such as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts will instill a sense of professionalism in the children. The aspiring divas, who range in age from 10 to 16, keep a tight schedule.

From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. five days a week, the students move from vocal and physical warm-ups to lighting and staging workshops to professional-development classes to individual voice training. They come out from under the spotlight for about an hour each day when they break for lunch.

Most of these cultural campers already had some vocal expertise when they arrived here, and they welcome the frenetic pace. Two of the children even have resumes and agents, and several have impressive performance credentials. Still, everyone had to audition to land a spot in the show.

But Michelle Kuntz, one of camp's music counselors, says she stresses camaraderie over competition when coaching the children. To avoid any dueling over parts, camp organizers even mailed participants a list of do's and don'ts called "How to be a Diva, Not a Dud at Opera Camp" before the first day of camp.

"We discourage prima donna attitudes," Kuntz says. "You can't have an opera without the chorus."

But these young people received training in more than how to perfect their voices for Brundibar, the children's opera they performed at the end of camp last month. The camp's curriculum intersperses operatic training with lessons in world history.

A Little Historical Context

Long before opening night, the campers learned that Brundibar was first performed in Prague in 1941 and later by Jewish children in the Terezin concentration camp during World War II. They learned that the composer, Hans Krasa, was sent to Terezin along with many other Czech artists in 1943. And they learned that Krasa eventually perished in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

A visit to an exhibit at the Holocaust Memorial Museum told another story: the story of a German Jewish boy who was sent to a concentration camp and survived.

"We want the youngsters to understand the historical background of the work they are performing as well as learn how to perform and appreciate opera," says Debra E. Blount, the camp's program director.

Brundibar is the story of two poor children in a small village who sing in the street to earn money to feed their sick mother. In the end, the children outsmart a tyrannical organ grinder named Brundibar (who steals their earnings) with the help of a band of magical animals.

Most of the young performers saw parallels between the story of Brundibar and the history of the Holocaust, both classic struggles of good against evil. "In the story, Brundibar is Hitler, and the children overthrow him," explains Susanna Reckford-Raymer, who plays the part of the terrible organ grinder.

Strutting on stage for rehearsal in a red plaid shirt, black hat, and menacing mustache, Susanna jokes, "I always get the bad parts." The teenager recently played the part of the witch in a local performance of Hansel and Gretel. But she says she doesn't mind playing the villain, especially if it means getting the lead.

The camp's gender imbalance--26 girls and two boys--made for some other creative role playing. Half the girls play boys' parts, and Kyle Soller, a 12-year-old soprano, has to make more than his share of costume changes to play the doctor, a delivery boy, and a school boy.

"Being one of two boys has its advantages," says Kyle, who is on stage for most of the 35-minute performance.

Ruben Harutunian, the 13-year-old soprano who plays the lead, Pepicek, also spends nearly the entire performance on stage. He says the role makes him think about the children who performed the opera behind barbed wire in the concentration camp more than 50 years ago.

But Ruben, who spoke little English when his family emigrated from Armenia two years ago, thinks the opera has a hopeful message. Standing at an upright piano practicing his part with the other principal singers, Ruben says, "What the opera is saying is if people stay together, they can defeat anything."

A Somber Note

That is the message that Ella Weissberger--a survivor of the Holocaust who performed in Brundibar for four years in the Terezin camp--hoped the children would learn when she came from her home in New York to talk with them about her experiences.

In a thick Czech accent, the 65-year-old Weissberger recounted how she and a tight-knit group of children regularly performed the opera for their fellow prisoners to lift their spirits. She also told of how they put on a show for officials from the International Red Cross when they visited as part of a Nazi propaganda tour in 1944. She remembered practicing in the crowded barracks and creating backdrops for the sets with the little paint that an artist had smuggled in.

Playing the part of the cat in Brundibar, Weissberger said, helped keep her mind off the horror around her--and the daily trains that left for Auschwitz, where many of her family and friends were gassed to death. "When we sang together, it gave me the strength to survive," she told the captivated group of young people huddled around her a day before their first performance. "It's so easy to give up," she added.

Weissberger, who was brought to the concentration camp when she was 11, is one of two survivors of Terezin's Brundibar cast. She believes she survived only because she was strong enough to work in the garden, where she grew vegetables for the Nazi guards until the camp was finally liberated in May 1945. She told the campers that their performance of Brundibar was "a tribute to all those children who didn't make it."

At the end of her talk, Weissberger showed the children the yellow star the Nazis forced her to wear and an old photograph of the Brundibar cast at Terezin. She urged this next generation of young performers to never forget what their artistic predecessors endured.

Jessica Lipps, who is Jewish, says Weissberger's talk had a powerful effect on her. The teenager approached Weissberger after her speech and asked a stream of questions. She found the talk more stirring than learning about the Holocaust through books in school.

"It's like it could have been me," Jessica says, shaking her head.

A Performance of a Lifetime

When the day of the show finally arrives, all the performers and crew members are filled with opening-night jitters. Backstage, the children slip into their costumes and practice their scales. The cat tweaks her whiskers, and Brundibar combs her mustache. Plenty of pancake makeup, hair spray, and lipstick are applied.

As the lights come up on the stage, the small orchestra begins to play. The entire cast gathers downstage for a poetry reading that precedes the performance. In peasant garb, the boys and girls read passages written by children who lived in one of the ghettos where Jewish people were forced to live before being sent away to the camps.

"I wonder where a lot of people are now," says a girl with long brown braids.

"Within barbed wire, things can bloom. Why not I? I will not die," says another.

The conductor waves his baton, and the opera begins. As ACT I opens, the children become a crowd of people wandering around a marketplace in a small village. Pepicek and his sister, with the help of the cat, dog, and sparrow, enlist the other children to sing a lullaby in the town square. But the organ grinder steals the coins the townspeople have dropped in their hat, and the children chase Brundibar offstage.

When the children finally defeat Brundibar at the end of ACT II, the cast brings the performance to a close with a song of spiritual resistance. "We've won a victory over the tyrant mean," the chorus sings. "Sound the trumpets, beat your drums." The orchestra booms as the singers strike their triumphant last chord.

Then suddenly, Weissberger, beckoned by the children, climbs onto the stage, pinches her throat with her fingers, and belts out the high-pitched finale in Czech.

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