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Holocaust love story told in world premiere opera

Opera Colorado selected to stage ‘Steal a Pencil for Me’ in Denver

The real life story for a new opera was right under composer Gerald Cohen’s nose. As cantor of the Shaarei Tikvah synagogue in Scarsdale, New York, Cohen had known Holocaust survivors Ina and Jaap Polak — members of the congregation there — for over twenty years when he conceived the idea of setting their story to music.

Their romance inside a concentration camp had already been the basis of a film documentary called ” Steal a Pencil for Me,” and Cohen easily convinced the couple to consent to and participate in an operatic retelling. But Jaap was 97 at the time and Ina 87, so they urged him to write it quickly. The two were among a group of Dutch Jews deported to the Bergen-Belsen camp in the last year of World War II.

Adapting a true story for singing is a challenging task, and Cohen enlisted librettist Deborah Brevoort, who could not resist the beauty of the letters the two secretly passed to each other in the camp. In an interview, Brevoort said that the demands of historical accuracy do not always serve drama, and that the Polaks completely understood this. “You have to play with the chronology a little and create composite characters,” she said.

The project continued toward a workshop performance in New York in 2013. The opera took the same title as the film. Conductor Ari Pelto was engaged for the workshop, and he was so taken by the work that he expressed interest in staging the world premiere at Opera Colorado, where he is music director. General director Greg Carpenter was also enthusiastic.

In the foreground, stage director Omer Ben Seadia, left, works with soprano Inna Dukach, portraying Ina Soep, during a staging rehearsal for Opera

In the foreground, stage director Omer Ben Seadia, left, works with soprano Inna Dukach, portraying Ina Soep, during a staging rehearsal for Opera Colorado’s “Steal a Pencil for Me.” (Kelly Maxwell / Opera Colorado)

The opera’s final form opens on Thursday in Denver, with additional performances on Jan. 27, 28 and 30. It is staged at the Wolf Theatre of the Mizel Arts and Culture Center. Pelto conducts, and highly regarded Israeli director Omer Ben Seadia makes her Opera Colorado debut. “Steal a Pencil for Me” is the second production in an Opera Colorado initiative begun last year to stage a more intimate and contemporary chamber opera in an alternative space outside the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. It is also the company’s second world premiere in three years, after Lori Laitman’s “The Scarlet Letter” was presented at the Ellie in 2016.

The Polaks were able to attend the workshop, which coincided with her 90th and his 100th birthdays, but they both recently passed away. They were married for nearly 70 years after the events of the opera. Pelto was actively involved in the revisions made after the workshop, making several musical and dramaturgical suggestions to Cohen and Brevoort, which were well received.

Both Ina and Jaap were in relationships prior to their meeting, and the treatment of these two figures was one of the aspects where Brevoort needed to deviate a bit from the actual events. Jaap’s marriage to his first wife, Manja, was already deteriorating at the time of their deportation, and she is a major figure in the opera’s action. Ina was engaged to a man named Rudi, who was deported before her.

While Ina didn’t know it until after the war, Rudi was dead before she ever met Jaap. But in order for the character to be real to the audience and for his loss to be felt, Brevoort depicted his deportation as occurring on the day she met Jaap. “I had to go to a deeper truth because Rudi was very much alive to her during the entire wartime experience.” Other than Rudi’s story, however, such changes to the actual events are surprisingly few, she said.

Brevoort said that the letters helped her to craft the individual voices and linguistic signatures for the characters. “That then turns into a musical signature when the composer receives the text,” she said. “I lifted some things wholesale from the letters.” She added, “We didn’t want to strive to make heroes out of them. They were ordinary people in an extraordinary situation, and that comes through in what they wrote to each other. There is something beautiful and poetic in their simplicity.”

Originally written in Dutch, the Polaks’ daughter Margrit translated the letters into English, beginning the journey of the letters as a book, a documentary, and now an opera.

Cohen said that his work as a cantor and a singer infuses his compositional style. “I’m singing all the time in my work, and am much attuned to what it’s like to sing musical phrases, to try to write things grateful to the singers, and to convey the drama and emotion of what is going on.” He said that many structural and musical ideas, including orchestration, follow the model set forth by Benjamin Britten in his great chamber operas. The four characters are assigned distinct vocal types. Ina is a light lyric soprano, Manja a mezzo, Rudi a tenor and Jaap a baritone.

Cohen said that the opera is in two through-composed acts, but that there are places that seem like solos, duets, trios or quartets. “I didn’t want to write a long set piece unless it really felt like that would convey a strong impression of who the character is at that point.” As an example, Cohen said that it became clear after the workshop that a big ensemble near the end of Act I wasn’t working as they expected, and that they needed Manja to have a defining moment. So she was given a solo to express what bothered her about Jaap and Ina falling in love. “This defined the character and helped bring the act to its proper close.”

Each act has nine scenes, and the music is continuous, Cohen said. The scenes in the concentration camp are framed by the opening and closing in Amsterdam. Cohen based the orchestration on the size of the pit at the Wolf Theatre. The 14 players include six winds, six solo strings, piano and percussion. The 400-seat venue was chosen because of its beautiful sight lines and excellent acoustics. The fact that it is in a Jewish community center is appropriate and significant. “The audience will have a visceral experience, being close to the singers,” Cohen said.

Cohen praised Pelto’s deep commitment to knowing the score and his ability to help singers bring out the drama in the music, along with his deep involvement in the process. “He is an ideal opera conductor,” Cohen said.