A Holocaust Story with a Happy Ending?
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 a semi-staged performance of the new opera Steal a Pencil for Me, with music by Gerald Cohen and book by Deborah Brevoort. The narrative, vividly portrayed via both music and dialogue, is rich with cruel irony and grim humor but also the irrepressible joie de vivre that kept Polak, his wife Manja and girlfriend Ina alive despite staggering odds against them. It has a happy ending, which at this performance moved several audience members to tears.
Jaap Polak, now 100, and his wife Ina, now 90, reside in Scarsdale, and attend the congregation where Cohen is cantor, a connection that springboarded the opera. Both husband and wife were in the audience, and remain sharp as a whistle. Two years from now, they will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary. That such a thing would be possible considering that the former Amsterdam residents were kidnapped by the Nazis, first sent to the Westerbork transit camp and then on to Bergen-Belsen in 1944 defies the imagination. Beth Greenberg’s stage direction was understated and fit the material – one doesn’t expect dancing in a piece about the Holocaust. Baritone Robert Balonek was fervent and winningly steadfast in his portrayal of the irrepressible Jaap. Soprano Ilana Davidson radiated hope against hope that transcended the aptly drab costuming (everyone has a yellow Star of David pinned to their coats). Among the supporting cast, soprano Cherry Duke brought a sardonic edge to her role as semi-reliable interlocutor, passing furtive love notes between Jaap and Ina.
Cohen’s music follows a natural, conversational rhythm, and because of that, must be murderously difficult to play. Perhaps with a nod to Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time, the ensemble Cohen pulled together – clarinetist Vasko Dukovski, cellist Chris Finckel, violinist Sasha Margolis and pianist Lynn Baker – rose to the occasion, nimbly conducted by Ari Pelto. The vocal melodies are not particularly cantabile, which makes sense considering the overwhelming sense of impending doom that settles in with the opening scene in Amsterdam, a party that quickly goes to hell when the Nazis show up and abduct Ina’s boyfriend Rudi (portrayed by baritone Nils Neubert as a comforting figure who recurs to Ina in surreal, dreamlike interludes) and take him off to be murdered. For the most part, Cohen eschews fullscale horror in favor of a bleakly monochromatic, relentless unease, waiting until the cast arrives at Belsen to let the strings rise with a Bernard Herrmann-esque, shivery terror. Cohen’s cantorial background informs and enriches the larger-scale choral segments, notably a mesmerizingly hypnotic, intricately contrapuntal crescendo toward the end which interpolates a triumphant Passover theme within murky, brooding, enveloping sonics. His characterization of the Nazis works mechanical, coldly monotonous circular motives: the banality of evil captured in sound.
Brevoort powerfully evokes the sheer surrealism and the increasing sense of dehumanization and despair that befalls the cast, but also moments where humanity emerges triumphant when least expected. Lisette, who at first betrays the burgeoning affair between the two lovebirds, has a change of heart and becomes their ally again, enabling Ina, who’s been given a menial job in the commandant’s office, to steal a pencil for Jaap so that he can continue to write her clandestine letters. The affair between them unwinds with not a little suspense, especially since Jaap’s wife and Ina’s father are both in the camp and prove to be a considerable impediment. In particular, the character of Manja is underwritten. The implication that she was a shrew with a wandering eye doesn’t go very far, and the reality – as Jaap Polak emphasized in a brief address to the audience afterward – is that she was the unsung heroine of this twisted adventure, nursing him back to health from a near-fatal bout of typhoid fever and then handing him off to Ina to live happily ever after. She deserves better. Somewhere there’s a circus rock band who ought to do the song “I Lost My Husband to a Rich Younger Woman in a Nazi Death Camp.”
As far as getting the message of this piece across, it would work better as a musical than an opera, which is not to say that Cohen should rewrite it as Springtime for Hitler. As it is now, the lyrics are likely more easily understood by regular operagoers than by general audiences: all too often, a particular nuanced moment, a shift in the plotline or even a punchline get lost in arioso vocal pyrotechnics. Considering the talent of the cast onstage, it’s a good gamble that they’d be equally capable of rendering the story in a more musically accessible, less stylized manner. Those who buy into the argument that in the age of microphones and vocal individualism, the bel canto style of singing has reached the end of the line, will probably agree with that statement. Those who don’t probably won’t. And it’s an argument that’s probably academic, anyway, since where this is ultimately bound is most likely the big screen. Steven Spielberg, are you out there?