This article by Betsy Schwarm about composer Gerald Cohen’s new opera STEAL A PENCIL FOR ME is reprinted with permission from Opera Colorado’s Ovation newsletter, summer 2017.
Many of the very best operas are love stories. Few, however, are closely based on actual experiences of actual couples. This season, Opera Colorado will present the world premiere of an opera telling the tale of a very true love. The work of composer Gerald Cohen and librettist Deborah Brevoort, Steal a Pencil for Me, was inspired by the romance of Ina and Jaap Polak, survivors of Bergen-Belsen and members of the Shaarei Tikvah synagogue in Scarsdale, New York, where Cohen serves as cantor.
Having known the Polaks for over twenty years, Cohen was well familiar with their experiences. “Here,” he says, “was an amazing story right under my nose.” Imagining what a powerful opera it could make, he broached the idea to Ina and Jaap, who, as he recalls “didn’t take a lot of convincing;” there was already a filmed documentary of their story, though an opera would be something new, and even more dramatic. However, at the time, Ina was 87 and Jaap 97, a fact that led Jaap to advise “write it quickly.”
Having permission from the central subjects to make an opera of their life is one thing, but one also needs a text suitable for singing. Cohen approached librettist Deborah Brevoort. “At first, I said no,” Brevoort admits. “I was just too busy to take on something new at the time. But I agreed to read the letters, and found them too beautiful to resist.”
Brevoort and Cohen sat down to visit with the actual persons at the center of the story: an immensely rare privilege in the opera world. Admittedly, when composer John Adams wrote his opera Dr. Atomic, he drew upon recently unclassified government documents concerning the Manhattan Project, but Robert Oppenheimer himself was already long gone. Of the conversation with Ina and Jaap, Brevoort says she found it “uplifting to actually spend time with them. I would be writing words to express their personalities.”
In another time and place, it might have been a romantic comedy. Brevoort sums it up: “boy meets girl – boy loses girl – boy gets girl back.” However, Ina, Jaap, and their friends and family are Dutch Jews during World War II; the Nazis are already on the scene and a concentration camp is in the immediate future.
Brevoort cautions, however, that the resulting opera isn’t a typical Holocaust story: “Their situation made them appreciate the joyous wonder of the world, how beautiful and wonderful a glass of water was. They dreamed about sitting in a chair at a table and having an ordinary breakfast. I was struck by the ordinariness of it, and the beauty.” If the classic verismo opera concept, a la Puccini, is using music to tell believable stories about believable people, here it was.
An initial version of Steal a Pencil for Me was workshopped in New York in 2013. In an opera workshop, a work-in-progress is performed before an audience, perhaps semi-staged. Seeing it come to life, its creative team can get a stronger sense of the piece and begin to refine their creation. Opera Colorado’s Music Director Ari Pelto was asked to conduct. He found the piece sufficiently intriguing that he discussed it with Opera Colorado’s General Director Greg Carpenter, and the two decided they might be interested in staging the work.
As Pelto remembers, “it had a lot of potential, though it wasn’t ready to be produced. It needed some dramaturgical attention for better story-telling.” The suggestions that Pelto and Carpenter presented to Cohen and Brevoort were well received, and the new opera began to take more definite form. “It’s a privilege beyond what you can imagine,” says Pelto, “to have this much input this early on, and it’s personally rewarding to see how far it’s come.” Pelto’s suggestions ranged from instrumental choices to re-ordering of events in Act One: factors that affect both how the music sounds and how the story flows.
Comparing the opera’s to what Ina and Jaap actually experienced, Brevoort says “there’s very little that’s invented. We changed some sequencing and altered the opening scene in context, so we could introduce one principal character to the audience before the Nazis take him. It seemed to make Ina’s memories of Rudi – at the time, he’s her fiancé – that much more vivid.” Ina and Jaap had agreed that, when one brings real life to the stage, something need to change for dramatic flow.
Ina and Jaap are the central love story, but before coming together, both had other loves. Ina was engaged to Rudi; Jaap was married to Manja. Cohen saw this “romantic square” as a perfect opportunity for an operatic quartet late in the work, with poor departed Rudi appearing as a ghost; both Rudi and Manja free their former partners to pursue new happiness. He decided to write Ina, the younger of the two women, as a light lyric soprano, making Manja a mezzo. Rudi, being a ghost, is a high tenor. Jaap is a baritone, in part to contrast Rudi, but also because Cohen himself, as a cantor, is a baritone; the composer admits he may gravitate to his own vocal range when setting important male characters. In fact, when it comes to writing an opera, he sees an advantage in his experience as a singer: “I sense what it feels like in the voice to sing these lines, what feels right and normal.” Many an opera singer wishes more composers would approach their operatic writing in that way.
Bringing out characters and situations through musical means is exactly what the best operas do, and Steal a Pencil for Me proves that this long-standing vision still works. Anyone wanting a preview of the story itself can find it on Netflix in a 2007 documentary by director Michele Ohayan that composer Gerald Cohen found truly inspirational. However, this touching tale of love in the face of deadly peril will become even more powerful with music to carry it into the hearts and minds of the audience.
After a full life together, both Ina and Jaap passed away recently. “Fortunately, they had been ableto attend the performances in Scarsdale and New York City, sitting in the front row for both performances – a deeply emotional experience for both them and the cast. The initial workshop performance was presented in honor of their 90th and 100th birthdays. Members of their extended family are hoping to come to Denver for Opera Colorado’s production early next year.
Don’t miss Opera Colorado’s world premiere of Steal a Pencil for Me January 25, 27, 28 and 30 at the Wolf Theatre at Denver’s Mizel Arts and Culture Center, Denver, Colorado.