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Exploring the Holocaust with the Opera North Youth Company

Holocaust Memorial Day is an international day of remembrance for all those murdered in the Holocaust and subsequent genocides. This year, the Opera North Youth Company were invited by Leeds City Council to create a new piece on the theme of ‘Stand Together’ to be performed as part of the city’s commemorations.

Over the last four months, 52 young people aged 13-19 have been working on the project, exploring the Holocaust and its aftermath and reflecting on the necessity of people standing together in the fight against discrimination and injustice. The resulting piece will be premiered in a free performance at Leeds Town Hall this Sunday. A short film has also been created which will be on display at Leeds Central Library throughout January.

The project started last year with a visit to the Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre in Huddersfield. The young people acquired a basic understanding of the chronology and facts of the Holocaust before following a survivor’s story and reflecting on the importance of remembrance.

“It was emotionally engaging to pick one person and to follow their experiences before finding out how they integrated themselves back into society and how their life changed because of surviving that experience. I learned a lot more about the personal individual impact of the Holocaust which is something I think is overlooked a lot in the teaching we get at school.”

— Sarah, 18, Opera North Youth Company

Holocaust statue at Theresienstadt concentration camp in Prague. Photo credit Nova Media

The ONYC subsequently worked with a composer and writer to start creating a piece which reflected their personal responses to what they had seen and heard, while also discovering and incorporating the songs of Jewish composers.

“Through a series of workshops, the group have looked at the writings of young people who experienced the Holocaust first hand, and have created their own words in response to the themes of the Holocaust and genocide.  I’ve seen my main job in this respect to be more of a “curator” of their words, shaping them into the finished text that the audience will hear.”

Anna Pool, Writer and Director

The Opera North Youth Company performing in a synagogue in Prague. Photo credit Nova Media

At the end of October 2019, members of the Company travelled to the Czech Republic and visited the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Prague where tens of thousands of Jews perished during the war.

In a particularly moving moment captured in the film, the young people sing ‘Wiegala’ – penned by the Jewish poet Isle Weber – in the attic where Brundibár, an opera written by Jewish composer Hans Krása, was performed by the children imprisoned there during WWII. Isle and her family were sent to Theresienstadt in February 1942 but were deported to Auschwitz two years later. It is said that Ilse sang to her son and many other children as she accompanied them voluntarily into the gas chambers.

“Going to the camp gave me a new outlook on how I live life.”

— Sammy, 14, Opera North Youth Company

A trip was also made to the Jewish Quarter and to a synagogue in Prague where the Youth Chorus were able to share the work they had already produced.

Titled ‘Standing Together’, the final 20-minute piece composed by the group will be performed during the Civic Remembrance Event which starts at 2pm on Sunday 26 January at Leeds Town Hall.

Find out more

The ONYC will also perform the work as part of the Brundibár Festival on 4 February at Sage Gateshead. Both performances are free and open to all. The film can be seen in Room 700 at Leeds Central Library until Monday 27 January.

“I hope the young people go out into the world more curious, more thoughtful and kinder individuals. I also hope those experiencing the young people perform come away with the same feelings that I do: that if we have these meaningful conversations with the younger generation, and share these horrific stories from history and from now, we have a fighting chance of preventing these horrors happening again.”

Michael Betteridge, Composer

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