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 Opera America, on 29th Street and 7th Avenue) on Thursday, January 16th, 2014. The showcase included 40 minutes of live and video excerpts, as well as a discussion moderated by dramaturg Cori Ellison; features Ilana Davidson and Robert Balonek as Ina and Jaap, as well as vocal soloists Toby Newman and Cherry Duke. Ari Pelto will conduct, with Lynn Baker as pianist.
STEAL A PENCIL FOR ME is a love story set in two concentration camps during World War II. It is based on the true story of Jaap and Ina Polak, whom the composer has known for the last 25 years, and who recently celebrated their 100th and 90th birthdays. The Polaks, who live in Eastchester, NY, will be in attendance. 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 have dedicated their lives to teaching about the Holocaust and fighting prejudice. Jaap was one of the founders of the Anne Frank Center USA, and now serves as Chairman Emeritus.
New York-based composer Gerald Cohen (www.GeraldCohenMusic.com) is equally at home in the composition of chamber music, choral music, opera, and liturgical music, for all of which he has won awards and praise, and for which Gramophone Magazine noted his “linguistic fluidity and melodic gift”. His operas Sarah and Hagar, a two-act opera based on the story from the book of Genesis, and Seed, a one-act opera about love and choices for a post-apocalyptic Adam and Eve, have been performed in concert form. Cohen received a B.A in music from Yale University and a D.M.A in composition from Columbia University.
New York-based librettist Deborah Brevoort (www.DeborahBrevoort.com) is formerly from Alaska. An award-winning playwright and librettist, she moves easily between the worlds of theatre, musical theatre and opera. Her plays and musicals are produced regularly to enthusiastic reviews, including Time Out London who noted her “gift for high poetry.” Deborah holds a B.A. from Kent State University and MFA’s from Brown University and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
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. 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.”
Although friends and relatives of theirs, including Rudi, perished in the camps, Jaap and Ina survived the Holocaust. They have been married for over 65 years and now live in Eastchester, NY. 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.”