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Opera Tells of Pain and Victory

The youth production, which was performed in Nazi camps, resonated with its director.

by Julie Stoiber
As printed in The Philadelphia Inquirer 3/30/03

The comic French opera was well under way, the main roles cast, the theater booked. Then the e-mail arrived, upending director Karen Saillant Bygott’s plans for a lighthearted spring.

The message, from the father of a girl who had sung in another of Bygott’s productions, urged her to look at a newspaper article about a children’s opera being staged in New York.

It was called Brundibar, and Bygott was overcome as she absorbed the chilling details of how the opera came to be – and the fate of the children who made it famous. “I couldn’t stop crying,” she said.

By the end of that day in mid-February, she had abandoned French romance and thrown herself into Brundibar, which will be performed from May 2 through 4 at Allens Lane Art Center in the Mount Airy section of the city.

Written in 1938 by Czech composer Hans Krasa, Brundibar tells the story of Annette and Little Joe, a brother and sister desperate to get money for milk for their sick mother. They try singing for coins in the town square, but Brundibar, the evil organ grinder, drowns them out.

With the help of a dog, a cat and a sparrow, Annette and Little Joe assemble all the children in the town in a chorus louder than Brundibar’s, and by the end of the day a gleeful Little Joe has a hatful of coins. Brundibar steals the money, but the children overpower him, and the opera concludes with their victory song.

Sixty years ago, that victory song was sung by the children of Terezin, a Nazi concentration camp northwest of Prague. They performed Brundibar 55 times, most often in a barracks, but for special occasions in a gymnasium. Once, their audience was a visiting committee of the International Red Cross. They also performed it for a Nazi propaganda film intended to show the rich life of Terezin inmates.

And that was their final curtain call: Most of the cast members, the opera’s composer, and thousands of other children and adults in Terezin were sent to the gas chambers.

“It’s so overwhelming,” Bygott said.

Brundibar has been staged all over the world, in productions large and small. The one in Mount Airy will feature 40 children, ages 6 to 14, from across Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey.

With each revival of Brundibar, the phone rings in the Tappan, N.Y., home of Ela Stein Weissberger.

Only 100 of Terezin’s 15,000 children survived, and she was one of them. Now 72, she is famous as the girl who played the cat in Brundibar.

“When I’m thinking about it, I’m getting goose bumps,” Weissberger said in a telephone interview. “I can’t believe this little opera is performed in the United States and I’m free like a butterfly.”

Terezin was a collection point for many composers, musicians and artists. One of the inmates was a teacher, Rudy Freudenfeld, whose father ran an orphanage in Prague where Brundibar had been performed twice. Freudenfeld arrived at Terezin with the piano score from the opera hidden in his suitcase.

Krasa, its composer, was already in the camp, and together they got permission from the Nazi guards to stage the opera. Freudenfeld conducted auditions.

“When it came my turn, somehow after I sang la-la-la he said, ‘You be the cat,’ and from that moment, he called me Kitty,” Weissberger remembers. “I wore my sister’s ski pants and my mother’s sweater.”

Freudenfeld was in forced labor at a mine, and many nights would arrive for rehearsal directly from work. “Not even a chance to wash his face,” Weissberger said. “He was for me, and probably for many other kids, a god.”

A lullaby in Brundibar still makes Weissberger cry. In the Mount Airy production, that lullaby is the only song that will be sung in the original Czech. Bygott, a soprano, sang it one night recently for visitors in the third-floor studio of her Center City home. “Beautiful,” said Laraine Winter when the song ended. “It’ll be charming.”

Winter’s son, Samuel, 14, has the role of the dog in Brundibar, his bark based on observations of the family mutt, Socrates.

He was one of the last actors to be cast. The rehearsal schedule will be intense. For an opera such as this, Bygott would like six months to prepare, but she came late to Brundibar and is fervent about making it happen.

“It’s given me a chance to express my own grief as I cry for these children,” she said.

The tears roll as Bygott talks about the source of that grief. Four years ago, she was attacked in front of her Lombard Street home by a man she’d chastised for urinating in a trash container. Her husband, Bernie, her childhood sweetheart, wrestled the man to the ground and held him until police came. Then Bernie collapsed in cardiac arrest. By the time medics revived him, Bernie was in a coma from which he would never recover.

For 16 months Bygott and her sons Bernard and Christian kept Bernie on a hospital bed in their living room, devoting themselves to his care. He died in June 2000.

“Just like the children in Terezin, we’re going through our own journey after a tragedy,” Bygott said.

When Bygott felt the children of Terezin helping her cope with her own devastation, she asked Christian, 20, a singer, to assist with casting in hopes that he, too, would benefit.

“We’re all trying to heal from things, aren’t we?” Bygott said. “Life is just that way.”

Opera Tells of Pain and Victory

1st opera in Western History set in Korea

“Shim Chung”- the opera International Opera Theater will create this summer in Italy, will be the very 1st opera ever created in western history to be set in Korea. This opera will provide a unique opportunity to participate in musical history!!!
14 Operas have been set in Asia- NONE HAVE EVER BEEN SET in Korea.

AFTER 300 YEARS: The 1st KOREAN OPERA will be “Shim Chung”
Composed by AN ITALIAN, Conducted by AN ITALIAN, SUNG IN ITALIAN & Premiered in ITALY: in Comune di Città della Pieve

The Korean culture is a unique culture- Koreans started fighting for independence in 1919 & finally achieved it in 1945, after a long & arduous struggle. 2019, marks the 100th anniversary of The Korean Independence movement! International Opera Theater celebrates this momentous occasion with this wonderful opera, based on an ancient Korean story which shares the power of a daughter’s unconditional love for her blind father- a love so profound, that she is willing to sacrifice her life so that he might see..

1- 1719: “Teuzzone” (Vivaldi) Italian- Set in China
2- 1863: “Pearl Fishers” (Bizet) French- Set in Sri Lanka
3- 1883: “Lakme” (Delibes) French- Set in India
4- 1893: “Madame Chrysanthème” (Messager) French- Set in Japan
5- 1898; “Iris” (Mascagni) Italian- Set in Japan
6- 1904: “Madama Butterfly” (Puccini) Italian- Set in Japan
7- 1917: “Turandot” (Busoni) German- Set in China
8- 1924: “Turandot” (Puccini) Italian- Set in China
9- 1952: ” Twilight Crane-Yuzuru” (Ikuma Dan) English-Set in Japan
10-1963: “The Last Savage” (Menotti) English- Set in India
11-1987: “The Savage Land” (Cao Yu) English- Set in China
12- 2006: “A Flowing Tree” (John Adams) English- Set in India
13- 2006: “The First Emperor” (Tan Dun) English- Set in China
14- 2011: ” Matsukage ” (Toshio Hosokawa) German- Set in Japan

15- 2019: “SHIM CHUNG” (Angelo Inglese) ITALIAN- SET IN KOREA. Premiere in Comune di Città della Pieve, ITALY.

The Artists

Karen Saillant, Artistic Director/Stage Director

Mi-Kyoung Lee, Art Director

Bernard Bygott, Assistant Artistic Director

Ornella Tiberi, Official Photographer

Francesca Tiriboca, Studio 54, Official Graphic Design House


Mauro Fabri

Gianmaria Griglio

Bruno Rigacci

Simone Luti


​Adam Silverman

Carlo Pedini

Daniel Shapiro

David Matthew Brown

Efraìn Amaya

Emily Wong

Gianmaria Griglio

Kile Smith

Mena Mark Hanna

Michael Djupstrom

Nicholas Mastripolito

Philp Ashworth Pierre

Thilloy Von deGuzman

Pietro Rigacci

Thomas Whitman

Tony Solitro

Troy Herion

Ya-Jhu Yang


Antonio Fava

Deborah Pioli

Eleonora Gai

Gianmaria Griglio

J. Christian Bygott

Karen Saillant

Lucio Lironi

Romina Minucci

Tommaso Sabbatini


Alisyn Kuntz

David Foss

Karen Saillant

Mi-Kyoung Lee

Nandini Bagchee

Sara Horne


Amanda Matyas

Marni Grambau

Mi-Kyoung Lee

Karen Saillant

Qiang Gong

Rachel Miller

Yunjung Kang


Bernard Bygott

Carl Angiolillo

Ian W. King

J. Christian Bygott

Mary Heffernan

Nicholas Garcia Orellana

Omar Ramos

Sherrice Kelly

Tim Nottage


Ella Marchment

J.Christian Bygott

Katy Stein

Shelby Murrin

Steven Wojciechowski


Beatrice Bartoli

Elizabeth Avery

Vittorio Rosetta

Fabio Bezuti

Reece Revak

Steve Weber

Elona Muca


Joel Schwartz

Lu Szumskyj

Tim Fitts


Susan DeAngelus


Sabrina Rota

Jan Schleiger

Matt DeLuca


Ada Conte

Angela Cingottini

Angela DelCore

Angiola Berzuini

Isabella Cesarini

Maria Pia Cesarini

Filomena Malerba

Flora Alegretti

Francesca Merli

Paolo Valenti

Karen Saillant, Artistic Director



Musician, stage director, opera singer, librettist, playwright, actor, commedia dell’arte artist, pianist, choral conductor, vocal coach & respiratory specialist, Karen Saillant has more than five decades of experience guiding singers and actors in the creation and performance of classic and original works of art. As a teacher of Breathing Coordination, with first hand ability to resolve all problems related to the holding of breath, Ms. Saillant has worked extensively giving master classes in Italy and private sessions at a Philadelphia medical facility to reeducate the diaphragm and return the respiratory system to healthy function, helping individuals with asthma, emphysema and all types of breathing and vocal disorders.

Starring in regional opera houses in Europe and USA, with standing ovations and rave reviews for her artistry and ability to communicate, she has received commissions for her original work from numerous institutions including The Museum of Modern Art, The Smithsonian Institution, The Philadelphia Orchestra, the National Constitution Center and The American Composers Forum. As founder and artistic director of International Opera Theater (IOT), 2018 marks the 15th year she will direct and produce a world premiere Italian opera in Italy- many having been based on texts of Shakespeare and social justice issues. In addition to premieres in Teatro degli Avvaloranti, Citta’ della Pieve, her works have been presented at The International Festival of Culture in Bergamo (80,000 in attendance), Teatro Mancinelli, Orvieto, Teatro Comunale, Citta’ di Saluzzo, Teatro Valle, Rome’s oldest opera house and in Philadelphia at The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Rosenbach Museum, The Ibrahim Theater, Gershman Hall, Prince Music Theater, Verizon Hall at The Kimmel Center and The Academy of Music, the oldest opera house in the US still in use, for their 150th anniversary celebration. In 2013, IOT presented the American premiere of “JAGO”, based on an original story by Karen Saillant, in Philadelphia. and also the world premiere of “Camille Claudel” in Italy. In 2014, IOT presented the world premiere of “AZAIO” in both Italy and Philadelphia for the 450th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare and the 180th anniversary of the death of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. “AZAIO” was based on an original story by Karen Saillant and her son, Christian Bygott. Starting in 2015, in addition to the annual Italian opera premiere, she began writing and producing world premiere cantatas for premiere at The Assisi Suono Sacro Festival.

Ms Saillant’s work has received support from foundations including Hersig Family Foundation, Philadelphia Foundation, Independence Foundation, William Penn Foundation and Presser Foundation. She attended Indiana University on a full vocal scholarship, graduating from Temple University with a Bachelor of Music and Combs College of Music, alma mater of Vincent Persichetti, with a Masters of Music. In 1976, Ms. Saillant became the first American to represent the US in The International Opera Competition in Sofia, Bulgaria. She was, the year before, the first singer presented in a New York recital debut by The Stough Institute of Breathing Coordination.

Before his death, Carl Stough, who discovered the authentic function of the respiratory system, designated her as one of a small number of his students to carry on his work. Carl Stough’s legacy was immortalized through 40 years of groundbreaking rehabilitation for thousands of patients in the field of emphysema. Additionally, at The XIX Olympic Games, held in Mexico City in 1968, his track and field team received more gold medals than in any other Olympics, setting records that would last 25 years and  becoming the only team to not need oxygen in the high altitudes of Mexico City.

Ms. Saillant has taught Breathing Coordination at The Healing Arts Medical Center in Philadelphia. In 1999 she was able to successfully remove her comatose husband from the ventilator, facilitating his independent respiration until his death one year and a half later. Her writing on Breathing Coordination has been translated into Italian, Portuguese and Chinese and will soon be available in Russian.