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STEAL A PENCIL FOR ME
(Opera in 2 acts, Music by Gerald Cohen, Libretto by Deborah Brevoort)

STEAL A PENCIL FOR ME is a love story full of hope, and a drama of overcoming great adversity, set during the dark times of WWII concentration camps. It is based on the true story of Jaap and Ina Polak, whom the composer knew for more than 25 years. The opera had its world premiere production by Opera Colorado in January 2018.

The action of the opera takes place in Amsterdam, at Westerbork transit camp, and at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp between the years of 1943-1945. Thirty-year old Jaap Polak is unhappily married to Manja, a social butterfly with a sharp tongue. He falls in love with twenty-year old Ina Soep, whose boyfriend, Rudi Acohen, has been seized and deported to Poland by the Nazis. When the husband, his wife, and his new girlfriend are deported to Westerbork, they actually find themselves living in the same barracks. Jaap’s wife objects to the relationship and Jaap and Ina resort to writing secret love letters, which sustain them throughout the horrible circumstances of the war.

INA (left) and JAAP POLAK

Although friends and relatives of theirs, including Rudi, perished in the camps, Jaap and Ina survived the Holocaust. They were married for almost 70 years; Ina died in 2014 and Jaap in 2015.

In creating the opera, Cohen and Brevoort hd the extraordinary opportunity to spend many hours speaking with Jaap and Ina, getting much rich detail about their lives, the world they in which grew up in Amsterdam before the war, and their experience of deprivation, loss, love and hope while in the concentration camps. The opera was first presented in New York in a semi-staged workshop version in 2013. These performances were done in honor of Jaap’s 100th and Ina’s 90th birthdays; they were present at these performances, and the mutual chance for them and cast to meet was extremely moving.


From Opera Colorado’s world premiere production.  Photographer: Matthew Staver

STEAL A PENCIL FOR ME was first written as a book in 2000, featuring their letters and their story. A distinguishing feature of their book of letters is how they allowed the story to unfold; unedited; their shortcomings and faults are just as easy to see as their nobility, and their honesty makes the story compelling and real. The Village Voice wrote that their story “offers a corrective to the sentimental prevailing notion that the Shoah only happened to saints.”

In 2007, STEAL A PENCIL FOR ME was made into a compelling and award-winning documentary feature film by Academy Award® nominee Michèle Ohayon. The Polaks dedicated their lives to teaching about the Holocaust and fighting prejudice. Jaap was one of the founders of the Anne Frank Center USA, and later served as Chairman Emeritus.  As Jaap says: “I’m a very special Holocaust survivor. I was in the camps with my wife and my girlfriend; and believe me, it wasn’t easy.”

Steal a Pencil for Me
Opera in Two Acts

Music by Gerald Cohen
Libretto by Deborah Brevoort

Cast, in Order of Vocal Appearance

Lisette                                                               mezzo
Manja Polak                                                    mezzo
Jaap Polak, Manja’s husband                  baritone
Ina Soep                                                            soprano
Rudi Acohen, Ina’s fiancé                         tenor
Abraham Soep, Ina’s father                     bass/baritone or baritone
Nazi / SS Guard #1                                        baritone
Nazi / SS Guard #2                                        bass
The Commandant                                         bass/baritone or baritone

Running time of opera (not including intermission): 2 hours

SYNOPSIS

Act One – June 1943 to February 1944

In Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, friends and family gather to celebrate Lisette’s birthday. Amongst the guests are Manja and Jaap Polak, unhappily married, but having agreed to stay together until the war ends. Jaap is immediately drawn to another party guest: Ina Soep, attending with her parents and her fiancé Rudi. Festivities are interrupted by a troop of Nazis who arrest several of the guests, including Rudi.

Manja, Jaap, his parents, and Lisette arrive at Holland’s Westerbork Transit Camp. They are warned about so-called Tuesday Transports, at which time prisoners are regularly dispatched to crueler camps in the east.  Ina and her parents also arrive, and Jaap manages to have them placed in the same barracks as his own family.

Frightened and alone, Ina imagines herself talking with Rudi and dreaming of an eventual reunion. Jaap advises her that imagining a better future is the only way to survive their present horror. They form a friendship and promise to share their thoughts with one another.

The Commandant announces that it is time for Tuesday Transport, and Jaap’s parents are amongst those selected. Jaap bids them farewell. However, he manages to pocket the Commandant’s dropped pencil, which he uses to write Ina a love note. Lisette is persuaded to pass the note on to Ina, and also brings back Ina’s reply, though the curious Lisette reads both notes.

Lisette gossips about the budding romance. As word spreads, it ultimately reaches Manja, who feels humiliated that everyone knows of her husband’s disaffection. She confronts Jaap and Ina, insisting that their romance must stop; Ina agrees. Now the Commandant reads the list of names for the next Tuesday Transport: both Jaap and Manja are amongst those to be dispatched to Bergen-Belsen.

Act Two – May 1944 to June 1945

At Bergen-Belsen the following spring, prisoners stand for mandatory Roll Call – a prolonged process whatever the weather. New arrivals come upon the scene, amongst them Ina and her parents.

Jaap and Ina meet behind the barracks, dreaming of the simple joys they intend to share in the future, particularly a simple breakfast together. Manja, and Ina’s father Abraham, both insist the romance must end. Jaap and Ina agree, though they pledge to continue writing letters. If only Jaap had a pencil: his has been lost. However, Ina works in the Commandant’s office, where there are pencils aplenty. Lisette comes to Ina with Jaap’s plea that she steal a pencil for him.

Catching Ina writing a letter to Jaap, the Commandant confiscates her writing materials. Sent to the other side of camp on an errand, she overhears word of developments at Auschwitz, and fearfully hurries away. She imagines another conversation with the absent Rudi, but begins to admit to herself that he may not have survived.

It is Passover. Another Roll Call is ordered. While the guards are distracted by verifying the count, Ina slips off to the Commandant’s office in search of a pencil, and the waiting prisoners dream of freedom. Ina returns in time to be counted, her successful theft of a pencil passing without notice. The pencil is passed to Jaap, but just then, the Commandant is ordered to vacate the camp.

As the prisoners are dispatched to other camps, Ina and Jaap find themselves heading in opposite directions. Jaap imagines the letter he would write to her if he could, but, alas, it is Manja, not Ina, who is at his side. Moreover, he is critically ill, and though his group of prisoners is freed (the war is very near its end), Jaap collapses, near death, and not knowing what has happened to Ina.

Back in Amsterdam, everyone in the neighborhood searches for word of loved ones. Manja comes upon Ina and reunites her with Jaap, who is recovering from his bout with typhoid. As it is clear to all that Ina and Jaap belong together, Manja agrees to a divorce. Rudi’s ghost, too, releases Ina, and Jaap and Ina can now join their lives. In celebration, they sit down to that long imagined ordinary breakfast.

Synopsis by Betsy Schwarm, derived from one by composer Gerald Cohen and librettist Deborah Brevoort

Steal a Pencil for Me: World Premiere Production

Opera Colorado presented the world premiere production of STEAL A PENCIL FOR ME, the opera that I wrote with librettist Deborah Brevoort, in January 2018 in Denver. The opera is a love story, full of hope, set during the the dark times of WWII concentration camps. It is based on the book of the same title by Jaap and Ina Polak, whom I knew for more than 25 years, and who had the chance to see the opera in its first semi-staged production in 2013.

Opera Colorado’s production featured conductor Ari Pelto (music director of the company), stage director Omer Ben Seadia, and a cast led by soprano Inna Dukach, baritone Gideon Dabi, and mezzo Adriana Zabala.

A pdf of the full printed program of the Opera Colorado production can be found here.
The press release about Opera Colorado’s production can be read here.
Performances were held on January 25, 27, 28, 30, 2018
at the Elaine Wolf Theater at the Robert E. Loup Jewish Community Center
350 S. Dahlia Street, Denver, CO


STEAL A PENCIL FOR ME has previously been performed in the following workshop performances:
•2013: Shaarei Tikvah, Scarsdale NY, and Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, NY: Semi staged concert version of complete opera
•2014: National Opera Center, Opera America, New York, NY: Excerpts of opera
•2016: Fort Worth Opera Frontiers Festival: Excerpts of opera

Steal a Pencil for Me: Vocal Score sample (from Act II, Scene 6)
Steal a Pencil for Me: Full Score sample  (from Act II, Scenes 4-5)

For information on obtaining performance materials (vocal score, full score, parts)
contact Gerald Cohen: gerald@nullgeraldcohenmusic.com

Running time of opera (not including intermission): 2 hours

Orchestra: 14 players
Flute (doubling Piccolo), Oboe (doubling English Horn), Clarinet in Bb, Bass Clarinet in Bb, Bassoon, Horn in F
Percussion
Piano
2 Violins, 2 Violas, Cello, Bass

Note: All of the audio excerpts below are from the 2013 workshop production.

Note: All of the video excerpts below are from the 2013 workshop production.

   

INA (left) and JAAP POLAK
INA (left) and JAAP POLAK

“Steal a Pencil for Me”—feature article in NewMusicBox (online magazine of New Music USA)

As a composer of vocal music—opera, choral, solo—I am always on the prowl for texts for vocal works and for stories which have potential as operas. Very often, as I read a novel or hear some fascinating true tale, my “operatic mind” starts imagining what the story would be like on stage with music, thinking about both the creative aspects (what opportunities are there for cool vocal ensembles in this story?) and practical ones (would this need too huge a cast to make it work as an opera?). There are such a variety of types of stories that could conceivably be transformed by composers and librettists when creating an opera; many recent operas have been based on well-known movies or novels, or on recent events in history. But sometimes a riveting plot for a dramatic work can be found in the stories of the people in one’s own life—and the close personal connections in such stories can be significant in generating the emotional energy needed to create and present a new opera…

Opera News

“Sometimes, truth is stranger than opera. In this touching work by composer Gerald Cohen and librettist Deborah Brevoort (seen Jan. 25), Jaap, an unhappily married fellow, falls for Ina, an engaged woman just before they are both swept away by the Nazis along as part of a group of 400 Amsterdam Jews… Baritone Gideon Dabi (Jaap) and soprano Inna Dukach (Ina) delivered Cohen’s accessible writing with admirable control and ideal enunciation… Company music director Ari Pelto… guided a solid, sympathetic accompaniment through the score’s many mood shifts and changes in meter. “

Opera Colorado Blog

The world premiere of Steal a Pencil for Me opens this Thursday evening—and few people know better than Opera Colorado Music Director Ari Pelto the long and exciting process of getting this new opera ready for the stage. Over the past five years, he’s spent countless hours working through the piece with composer Gerald Cohen and librettist Deborah Brevoort, then working with stage director Omer Ben Seadia and her creative team as they got the production ready. And now, after a breakneck rehearsal schedule over the past month, Pelto is thrilled for Opera Colorado audiences who are just days away from experiencing the beautiful music and powerful message of Steal a Pencil for Me. Today we check in with Pelto about his experiences with this opera…

Boulder Daily Camera

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…

New Music Connoisseur

By Joel Mandelbaum

Steal a Pencil for Me, an opera by Gerald Cohen to a libretto by Deborah Brevoort, was presented on April 30th, 2013 at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in a semi-staged version, accompanied by an ensemble of four instruments. It tells the fascinating story, true to life down to very particular details, of how two remarkable Holocaust survivors met, fell in love and gradually divested themselves of previous binding relationships—their stories unfolding over a background of increasingly harsh repression by the Nazi occupiers of their native Holland…

January 2014 Showcase at Opera America

Based on the book of the same title by Jaap Polak and Ina Soep Polak, STEAL A PENCIL FOR ME is a new opera with music by Gerald Cohen and libretto by Deborah Brevoort. A private presentation of excerpts from Steal a Pencil for Me took place at the National Opera Center (at the home of […]

The Scarsdale Inquirer

Review of “Steal a Pencil for Me” Scarsdale Inquirer, May 10, 2013 by Andrea Kurtz For many years, Gerald Cohen, the cantor at Shaarei Tikvah Congregation in Scarsdale, wanted to write an opera about the Holocaust. In the interim, he’d composed a two-act opera about Sarah and Hagar and a shorter one about a post-apocalyptic […]

Lucid Culture

A Holocaust Story with a Happy Ending? Lucid Culture Blog It’s a story straight out of Hollywood, except that it’s true. Jaap Polak survived the Nazi death camps with his wife and his girlfriend – barely. Tuesday night at the Jewish Theological Seminary auditorium, their improbable story was brought to life in chilling detail in […]

The Journal News

Opera shares Eastchester couple’s romance in concentration camp by Julie Moran Alterio Whether it’s “Aida” or “The Hunger Games,” a love triangle makes for enduring drama. The real-life tale of an Eastchester couple caught in a love triangle while struggling to survive inside Nazi concentration camps is the inspiration for a new opera with music […]

The Jewish Week

Composer Gerald Cohen stages Jack and Ina Polak’s ‘complicated’ concentration camp romance. George Robinson Special To The Jewish Week The composer Gerald Cohen has known Jack and Ina Polak for over 25 years, first as their cantor at Shaarei Tikvah Congregation in Scarsdale and, gradually, as a friend. So when he asked the couple if […]

“Last week I witnessed the second performance of Gerald Cohen’s new Opera, Steal a Pencil For Me at JTS. It was a great experience! I found the music hypnotic. At this stage, it was scored for piano, violin, cello and clarinet, so skillfully, that at times it sounded like an orchestra. The singers were world class, with the astonishing Ilana Davidson playing the female lead. The excellent libretto by Deborah Brevoort, was brought forth by brilliant lyric diction by the singers, and the conductor, Ari Pelto, was wonderful. The audience was filled with many of New York’s musical intelligentsia, as Gerald has already built up a reputation. My friends, this is the work of a Master. I truly believe this musically passionate man carries the line of such great Jewish Composers such as Copland and Bernstein.”

Cantor Jack Mendelson
cantorjackmendelson.com

“Thank you for the beautiful gift to the Polaks and to those of us in the audience last night. What a memorable evening! The glorious score, fine musicianship (the 4 instrumentalists were superb–I never missed a full orchestra– and the singers were outstanding), and of course, the powerful story. King Solomon had it right: “Love IS stronger than death. Having the Polaks in the audience was ever so moving.”

Carol K. Ingall, Ed.D
Dr. Bernard Heller Professor Emerita of Jewish Education
The Jewish Theological Seminary

“I have to tell you that I woke up thinking about the opera. It was a completely compelling and thrilling performance and I am truly dazzled by your music. And the story of course! One of the occupational hazards of being so Jewishly-entrenched is “Holocaust fatigue.” I think that we often are at danger of missing great cultural offerings because we assume we have seen something similar. Steal a Pencil for Me is unlike ANYTHING I have ever seen. Being able to see it in an audience with the inspirations for it was incredibly moving…Thank you for inspiring and uplifting me!”

Shira Dicker, SHIRA DICKER MEDIA INTERNATIONAL
Creative Communication Consultants

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Sarah and Hagar, written with librettist Charles Kondek, is an opera in two acts, completed in 2008. The opera, with a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes, is based on the powerful story in the Book of Genesis about the origins of the Jewish and the Arab peoples, and about the intense personal struggle that goes on in the family of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar over the birth of their children Ishmael and Isaac.

There were many different reasons that the story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael appealed to me as the basis of my first opera. I have always been fascinated with the stories in Genesis, and the idea of creating midrash from these stories. The particular spur to dramatizing this story was the desire to show the “double sacrifice” that Abraham has to make of his two children—that there is a clear parallel, in the way that the story is presented in the Bible, between the banishment and near-death of Ishmael, and the binding and near-death of Isaac.

As Charles Kondek and I worked on developing the libretto, it was clear that there were many choices to be made in telling of the story, which is presented so tersely in the Torah. What is the relationship of Sarah and Hagar before Hagar becomes Abraham’s concubine? What is it that Hagar does when she is pregnant that makes Sarah deal harshly with her? How do Sarah and Avraham regard Ishmael’s status in the years before Sarah becomes pregnant with Isaac? What is it that Ishmael does that causes Sarah to ask Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael? These and many other questions were key to shaping the story as it would be presented on stage and in music.

The first act of the opera was presented in concert form in 2005; a recording of that performance, with Elizabeth Shammash, Ilana Davidson, and Robert Gardner in the principal roles, and conducted by Michael Adelson, is available on CD or mp3 by contacting gerald@nullgeraldcohenmusic.com, or by download from oySongs.

SARAH AND HAGAR
Opera in two acts
Music by Gerald Cohen
Libretto by Charles Kondek

Cast, in Order of Vocal Appearance

Sarah                                                                    mezzo
Hagar                                                                   soprano
Avraham                                                             baritone
Ishmael (as a boy)                                          mezzo
1st Man                                                               tenor
2nd Man                                                             baritone
3rd Man                                                              bass
Itzhak (as a man)                                            tenor
Ishmael (as a man)                                        baritone

CHORUS: Figures, Elders, Neighbors/Relatives
(Note: The tenor singing 1st Man can double as the adult Itzhak; the baritone singing 2nd Man can double as the adult Ishmael.

Scene: Ancient Canaan 

Synopsis of the opera:

ACT I:
Avram and Sarai (who will later be known as Avraham and Sarah) have lived for 15 years in the land of Canaan, where they have been promised to be the ancestors of a new people—however, they are old and childless. 

Scene 1:
Sarai cries out as she awakes from a recurring nightmare about the generations preceding her, and her barrenness. She is comforted by her handmaid Hagar, with whom she is very close; Hagar speaks of Sarai’s good fortune in having Avram as a loving husband. Together, they sing a lullaby to the child they wish for, and suddenly Sarai has an idea. 

Scene 2:
Avram reflects on his sadness, in spite of all that is good in his life, of not having a child, and of the as-yet unfulfilled promise from God.

Scene 3:
Sarai tells Avram of her solution: she will give Hagar to Avram as a concubine, and Hagar will bear a child for them. Avram at first protests, saying that he is too old, but is convinced by Sarai’s persuasion–both sensuous and generational—and by Hagar’s consent, that indeed this could be the way for all of their lives to be fulfilled.

Scene 4:
A crowd gathers and talks of the rumor—Hagar is to have a child, an heir for Avram!

Scene 5:
Sarai rushes in to Hagar, and demands to know why Hagar had not told her that she was pregnant. Hagar says that she was waiting, wanting to keep the secret to herself for a while, and sings of her joy in having a life grow within her. Sarai is still angry that she was not told, and when Hagar, provoking, says “I only did what you were unable to do,” Sarai slaps her. The two women, stunned, embrace, and try to mend what has just happened between them. 

Scene 6:
There is an exuberant party celebrating the birth of Ishmael, Avram and Hagar’s son. Neighbors and relatives dance, and Avram joyously speaks of his child’s great future. When Sarai and Hagar enter, they and Avram have a quiet trio in which Sarai and Hagar each assert to themselves that the child “is mine.” Then we return to the party and its joyous dance—but the final image of the act is Hagar and Sarai staring tensely at each other.

ACT II 

Scene 1:
Act II begins thirteen years later, as Sarah and Avraham stand, at dawn, reflecting on their long lives and the joy they have with each other and with Ishmael. Ishmael, now a teenager, is seen in the background, proudly tending the sheep. As the day’s heat arrives, three travellers appear, and announce that Sarah will give birth to a son—Itshak; Avraham and Sarah are at first bewildered, and then dare to believe this news. Hagar has overheard, and is worried what will then happen to her and to Ishmael. 

Scene 2:
There is once again a joyous party—this time celebrating the weaning of Itshak. At the celebration, Ishmael, in high spirits, dances around with Itshak, proclaiming to all: “Itshak, my brother!” Sarah, angry, is now resolved that she must take action to protect Itshak’s status as heir.

Scene 3:
Sarah declares passionately to Avraham that Hagar and Ishmael must be banished. Avraham is deeply pained, but feels that he must follow Sarah’s will. Hagar enters, pleading. After a trio in which each sings of the painful emotions of this moment, Avraham tells Hagar she must leave. 

Scene 4:
Hagar and Ishmael are walking alone in the desert, and stop to rest; there is no more water. Ishmael, angry, talks of Sarah and Avraham as “monsters,” and Hagar tries to comfort him. Together they sing the earlier lullaby, but Hagar breaks off before the end, lamenting for her son. 

Scene 5:
The figures, now narrating the words of God, call on Avraham to sacrifice his son Itshak on Mount Moriah. Sarah asks Avraham why he would do such a thing, and he replies that “the world is filled with many whys.” Avraham goes off, leaving Sarah alone to mourn her loss; then we also see Avraham, on the mountain, as he, Sarah and the reciting chorus join in an ensemble leading to Sarah and the chorus calling out, “Avraham! Avraham!”

Scene 6:
The final scene moves ahead several decades to show Itshak and Ishmael, as grown men, together at the burial of Avraham, their father—both survived their terrifying episodes of their childhood, but have not seen each other since Ishmael’s banishment. We see an attempt at reconciliation beyond the time of the story itself—as Sarah and Hagar, Itshak and Ishmael, and Avraham as their common bond, reach out to the generations of their descendants.

 

Concert Premiere of Act I: April 2005: Elizabeth Shammash, Robert Gardner, Ilana Davidson; Michael Adelson, conductor; New York, NY and Scarsdale, NY
Performances of excerpts:
June 2006: Center for Jewish History, New York, NY
March 2010: Hebrew Union College, New York, NY
June 2012: Washington and Lee University, Lexington, VA

thumbnail of Sarah and Hagar Vocal Score sample

thumbnail of Sarah and Hagar Full Score sample

Sarah and Hagar Vocal Score sample (from Act I, Scene 1)
Sarah and Hagar Full Score sample (from Act I, Scene 6)

For information on obtaining performance materials (vocal score, full score, parts)
contact Gerald Cohen: gerald@nullgeraldcohenmusic.com

Chamber Ensemble:
Flute, Clarinet in Bb, Violin, Viola, Cello, Piano

The Scarsdale Inquirer

Neither Mozart, Verdi, Rossini, nor even the modern-day composer John Adams thought to do it, yet the age-old story was ripe for the plucking, juicy with drama and conflict, tragedy and a complicated love triangle, the thematic lifeblood of opera.  But Gerald Cohen, cantor of Shaarei Tikvah, the Scarsdale Conservative Congregation, did.  He is composing an opera based on the story of Sarah and Abraham and Hagar in the Bible’s Book of Genesis, and in doing so, he joins the ranks of American composers contributing to the new opera boom in the United States.  The first act of the composer’s opera-in-progress, “Sarah and Hagar.” will be presented in concert form at Shaarei Tikvah on Tuesday, May 24, at 8 p.m.

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Seed, Opera in one act, libretto by David Simpatico (2011)—40’
3 principal roles: mezzo, tenor, baritone
Concert premiere: June 2011