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Brundibar and Amahl and the Night Visitors

The story of Brundibar, a children’s opera written for children’s voices, is simple. A poor girl and boy sing in the town square for money to buy milk for their sick mother. They are forced out of the square by the organ grinder Brundibar, but with the help of the town’s schoolchildren and some magical animals—the Cat, the Dog, and the Sparrow—the children drive the evil Brundibar away. The opera was performed 55 times by Jewish children in Terezin, a concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, where the opera’s composer and many of Europe’s most talented musicians, writers, and artists were interred. Unknown to the Nazis, Brundibar represented Hitler. As the children sang their victory song over the evil organ grinder, they sang of their hope for the overthrow of the Nazi regime.

Of more than 15,000 children who passed through Terezin between 1942 and 1944, only 132 survived to see the end of World War II. One of those children, Ela Stein, was 11 years old when she was sent to Terezin. In 1943, Ela was cast as the Cat in the Terezin production of Brundibar (pictured); she played the role in all 55 shows. Now married and nearly 80 years old, Ela Weissberger lives in Tappan, N.Y. She has co-authored a book, The Cat with the Yellow Star, and traveled around the world speaking about her experiences as a Jewish child in Nazi Europe. She has seen, to her joy, Brundibar performed in many languages, in many countries, by children who are free.

This weekend, Weissberger will see Brundibar performed in Schenectady, at Proctors GE Theater. In a recent phone interview, she shared a glimpse of her hard-earned insight, her unfalteringly hopeful spirit, and her belief that these stories must be told.

“It is so important to let people know that we had to fight evil,” she says, with quiet ferocity. “Even now, I think it’s so important for the children to know that, somewhere in the world, children are suffering, and that people are letting it happen. It still exists, and we still have to fight it.” It’s important, says Weissberger, that free children hear the stories of intolerance, so they will want to fight against it.

Children, she emphasizes, are still innocent, still open. She wants the children who see and perform in the opera to know how much it meant to the people of Terezin. “It was a moment when we forgot where we were,” she says. “While we performed we didn’t have to wear the Jewish star. It was a few moments of freedom, not to be marked. Not to be punished. And we gave to the people happiness. Hope. The little things meant so much for us. The little things.”

“We sang without costumes,” she adds. “Myself, I had my mother’s black ski pants and my sister’s black sweater, and a little bit of shoe polish for makeup. Now, we thought, now we are actors.” Through Weissberger’s thick Czech accent, her laugh rings with the pure bell of a child’s.

During the 55 productions at Terezin, Weissberger saw many of her friends leave for “the East.” She wanted to go, not knowing that being sent east meant being sent to death at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The boy who played Brundibar, Weissberger recalls, always wanted to be an actor. “He was so talented, so funny. He was the opposite of Brundibar. But Dr. Mengele decided he was too small by an inch or so, so he sent him away to the gas chambers. So many good-hearted kids, their talents, their laughter, are gone.”

It is for those children, for the friends she lost, that Weissberger continues to tell her stories. “I feel now that I speak in their voices,” she says, “because they cannot speak for themselves. I have them in my heart till I die, because no one remembers them better than I.”

The story she tells of the children’s opera in Terezin is a story of loss, of cruelty and oppression, but it is also a story of survival, and hope. It is the story of the human spirit, standing proudly in snow pants, singing a victory song in the face of inhuman brutality—and winning.

Weissberger will speak about Brundibar and her experiences at Terezin prior to the opening performance tonight (Thursday, Dec. 20) from 6:45 to 7:15 PM. Brundibar will be performed along with the one-act family opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, which quickly become an enduring holiday classic after its NBC-TV premiere in 1951. The two family operas will be performed at the GE Theater at Proctors (432 State St., Schenectady) Thursday through Saturday (Dec. 20-22) at 7:30 PM, and on Sunday (Dec. 23) at 2 PM. Tickets are $25, and can be purchased by calling the box office at 346-6204.

—Kathryn Lange

Street Dogs

Featuring the former lead singer of Boston punks Dropkick Murphys and the former drummer of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Street Dogs have a New England punk and hardcore pedigree like no other band. Street Dogs would not even exist if Mike McColgan hadn’t quit Dropkick Murphys to pursue his dream of becoming a firefighter in Boston. McColgan was drawn back to music and formed his new band in 2002; despite a few disruptions and lineup changes while McColgan juggles his two careers, Street Dogs are still together.

In his music, McColgan describes gritty working-class life in Boston, along with favorite topics like drinking problems, girl problems and job problems. If anything, Street Dogs are very, very real. Oi!

Street Dogs will perform Saturday (Dec. 22) at 7:30 PM at Valentine’s (17 New Scotland Ave., Albany). Tickets are $5. For more information, call 432-6572.

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