Opera News

REVIEW: Steal a Pencil for Me: DENVER, Opera Colorado
by Marc Shugold

LOVE CAN BLOOM almost anywhere, even in the horrid surroundings of Bergen-Belsen at the height of the Holocaust. Incredibly, that’s exactly what happened to a real-life Dutch couple, whose uplifting romantic tale is told in the new opera, Steal a Pencil for Me, which received its staged premiere by Opera Colorado in Denver’s Mizel Arts and Culture Center.

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. This Holocaust love story resolves happily, when the central couple and many of their friends and family are liberated at war’s end. In reality, it all actually transpired. The re-united lovers lived to a ripe old age together, long enough to connect with Cohen, who serves as cantor at the Scarsdale, N.Y. synagogue where Jaap and Ina were members. In 2000, their love letters (most of them secretly written with a stolen pencil) were published, followed by a 2007 documentary, both bearing the title used later for the opera. Meeting the couple and hearing their story inspired Cohen to collaborate with Brevoort, and in 2013, a run-through of Steal a Pencil was given in the Scarsdale synagogue with the couple in attendance. Ina died the following year after sixty-eight years of marriage to Jaap, who died in 2015 at 102…

There were some effective moments, including a charming duet in which the lovers longed for “a life of ordinary breakfasts.” (Supertitles were projected on two side walls of the 440-seat Wolf Theatre’s thrust stage.) The touching conclusion found the happy couple seated at a table as Jaap slyly reveals a notepad and pencil, a reminder of the letters secretly exchanged during their incarceration. The two-act opera was basically another version of the Eternal Triangle: the couple was forced to share barracks at Bergen-Belsen with Jaap’s disagreeable first wife, Manja. The storyline was handled without fuss by the creative team: arguments, jealous glances, vindictive words, secret embraces and neighbors’ gossip were among familiar elements found here. Three Nazi guards, snarling and insulting, served as token oppressors….the opera’s ending provided a powerful reminder of those who did not survive. The unobtrusive direction of Omer Ben Seadia was well-paced, using every inch of the smallish performing space…

Vocally, there were few quibbles. Baritone Gideon Dabi (Jaap) and soprano Inna Dukach (Ina) delivered Cohen’s accessible writing with admirable control and ideal enunciation. Dukach was given only a few moments of full-throated singing, when she let loose with sustained high notes lamenting Rudi, her lost love. He served as a shadow figure, having been dispatched early on, appearing only in dream-like visits, which were sung with gentle sadness by tenor Nathan Ward). There was fine supporting work from mezzos Katherine Beck (as the couple’s friend and messenger Lisette) and Adriana Zabala (Jaap’s spurned wife Manja), and by baritone Andrew Garland (Ina’s disapproving father Abraham). Nicholas Kreider, Andrew Hiers and Heath Martin, sang with conviction as the three growling Nazis, as did a small contingent from the Opera Colorado Chorus, prepared by Sahar Nouri. Company music director Ari Pelto, who had long championed the work and presided at the 2013 workshop performance in Scarsdale, led the fourteen-piece ensemble in the pit. With seemingly no effort, he guided a solid, sympathetic accompaniment through the score’s many mood shifts and changes in meter.  —Marc Shulgold