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.

The occasion of its premiere was made all the more poignant by the presence in the house of the real-life couple whose extraordinary experiences in the 1940’s are faithfully retold here. Jaap Polak and Ina Soep meet and are strongly attracted to one another. Jaap, however, is already married to Manja, portrayed here as excessively flirtatious with other men, while Ina is in a deep relationship with Rudi, who is almost immediately carted away by the Nazis and never heard from again.

Although Manja is willing, from the start, to grant Jaap a divorce once the war is over, she and eventually the other characters share a keen awareness that appearances must be kept up lest Nazi eyes notice the irregularities in their lives and use them as a basis for extreme punishment.

In a quartet, which is a highlight both in musical richness and in plot clarification,  Ina’s father and Manja convince Ina and Jaap that they must avoid being seen together. So Ina and Jaap stay separated, communicating through written notes (some of them written with the stolen pencil of the title) carried by an only intermittently reliable courier, Lisette.

Rudi, Ina’s former lover, appears from time to time as a creature of Ina’s imagination, at first urging her to survive, and eventually releasing her. His visitations are among the most poignant scenes in the opera.   Less is seen of Manja, who remains something of a nag throughout, and whose ultimate redeeming act takes place out of view and is only recorded in retrospect: her nursing her husband back to life from a near-fatal case of typhoid fever just as liberation finally occurs, all the while knowing that she will give him up as soon as he is well again.

The musical score is rich and well suited to the events it portrays. Cohen, himself a cantor, writes extremely well for voice and the vocal lines are beautifully wrought. The accompaniment runs to frequent ostinatos and harmonies that as often confront as magnify the vocal lines—appropriate enough considering that the action takes place over an always threatening background.   When the characters are able to overlook that background, as in a charming trio where the two separated lovers and their courier interact as though the space between them has somehow disappeared, the harmony becomes supportive and the music glistens.

There are effective choral segments as well. The chorus seems to have a double use. Sometimes it is simply the voices of the community sharing Jaap and Ina’s lives. Other times, like a Greek chorus, it appears to transcend the action and pass judgment. A particularly strong choral scene comes very late in the opera where lamentations are sung out during a Passover seder. It staggers the imagination that people otherwise portrayed as barely surviving could sing out with such passion but never mind, the expressivity of the scene is transfiguring. This splendid choral outpouring is a parallel in Jaap’s imagination to Rudi’s visitations in Ina’s.

The performers were all solid. The staging, by Beth Greenberg, was about as effective as could be managed without sets or a full stage. Nonetheless, the absence of full staging (and of titles) left one wishing for the advantages of a fully staged performance. It was, in the cramped space, sometimes hard to tell at a glance which character was singing. The three leading ladies were all lean attractive brunettes of about the same height and fairly similar vocal tessiturae. The realistic prison garb made it difficult to distinguish them by appearance.

Ari Pelto conducted with a sure sense of the rhythm, communicating the mercurial changes in the score with a deft hand. However, one persistent flaw marred the performance: his batonless right hand maintained a peripatetic forte throughout, and the performers (with the exception of Lynn Baker, the superb pianist and coach) followed his right hand sufficiently that the dynamic of pianissimo was never used throughout the evening.   But it is present in the score, especially in those wonderful scenes when Rudi appears as a figment of Ina’s imagination.   The puzzlement that many in the audience felt on seeing and hearing him after his disappearance would, I’m sure, not have occurred had the pianissimo instructions been scrupulously followed. And Ina’s gentle character would have been more successfully limned and differentiated from the others if Ilana Davidson, the otherwise highly effective portrayer of the part, had sung the high notes marked piano and pianissimo as indicated.

For the singers portraying the victims, conveying the weakness of their situation while letting us hear their confident, well-trained voices, proved daunting. They all did reasonably well with this problem. I thought Robert Balonek, who portrayed Jaap, did the best at sublimating his vocalism to portray memorably a character in the full homeliness of his predicament.

The most memorable singers for their vocal power were the three who played Nazi captors, Ricardo Rivera, Miloslav Antonov and Enrico Lagasca. They made it very clear that they were in charge. All three were recruited via Mannes College of Music.

One hopes that a full staging of this opera will soon follow. One also wonders whether more instruments will be added to the ensemble. Cohen uses piano, violin, clarinet and cello remarkably well. It would certainly improve the economics of opera production if that small an orchestra could become standard. Nevertheless, some more instrumental colors might be very helpful—in underlining the ghostliness of Rudi’s appearances and, perhaps in providing clearly different colors to identify Manja and Ina.

Since operas are almost always tweaked before a second performance, I would express my own wish for more recognition of Manja’s redeeming deed—even if only by an extended expression of gratitude by Ina and the others. But that is a small matter. Overall, Steal a Pencil for Me is a beautifully sculpted work which will, I hope, be seen by many audiences and celebrated as a monument to the perseverance of the human spirit in the face of barbarism.