Gerald Cohen with Jaap and Ina Polak plus members of the cast of the opera about their lives, Steal a Pencil for Me, following a semi-staged workshop at Shaarei Tikvah in April 2013.
Knowing the Characters in Your Opera, Literally
Gerald Cohen with Jaap and Ina Polak plus members of the cast of the opera about their lives, Steal a Pencil for Me, following a semi-staged workshop at Shaarei Tikvah in April 2013.

Knowing the Characters in Your Opera, Literally

As a composer of vocal music—opera, choral, solo—I am always on the prowl for texts for vocal works and for stories which have potential as operas. Very often, as I read a novel or hear some fascinating true tale, my “operatic mind” starts imagining what the story would be like on stage with music, thinking about both the creative aspects (what opportunities are there for cool vocal ensembles in this story?) and practical ones (would this need too huge a cast to make it work as an opera?).

There are such a variety of types of stories that could conceivably be transformed by composers and librettists when creating an opera; many recent operas have been based on well-known movies or novels, or on recent events in history. But sometimes a riveting plot for a dramatic work can be found in the stories of the people in one’s own life—and the close personal connections in such stories can be significant in generating the emotional energy needed to create and present a new opera.

Sometimes a riveting plot for a dramatic work can be found in the stories of the people in one’s own life.

In addition to my life as a composer, I am also a synagogue cantor and have had the great privilege to be a part of the same vibrant community for the last 30 years—Shaarei Tikvah Congregation in Scarsdale, New York. I knew from childhood that I wanted to be a composer and pianist, but it was only after several years of working as a cantor, while in graduate school as a composer, that I came to realize that I was so fortunate to find an occupation that is a profoundly meaningful complement to my composing life. Being a cantor combines my love of music, community, and spirituality. It allows me to sing in public every week, with room for improvisation, and for the deep expression of personal and communal emotions. Judaism has a rich tradition of poetry and storytelling that have inspired me in my composing of liturgical music, concert music, and opera.

My experience as a cantor has also taught me a lot about the power of music in a setting other than performance—the immediacy of reaching out to people with music (both as a soloist and as a leader of communal singing) that certainly is about the music, but is even more about our lived experience as a community. And, through my long connection to my congregation, with its diverse intergenerational population, I have gotten to know many wonderful people and have had the opportunity, both through music and in our personal relationships, to help them celebrate joyous occasions and to find ways to grieve in difficult times.

Two of the most remarkable people I had known since my first days in the community were Jaap and Ina Polak, who, like several other members of our congregation, were survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. Jaap and Ina were from Amsterdam. I gradually became more aware of their story as Jaap spoke to us about the Holocaust, his and Ina’s personal experiences in the concentration camps, and the need to learn from the example of the Holocaust so as to guard against all forms of discrimination and racism, as well as the importance of speaking out against these and other injustices.

In the 1970s, their daughter Margrit found in their attic and began translating the letters that Jaap and Ina had secretly passed to each other while imprisoned in the Westerbork and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. Until this point, Jaap and Ina had not spoken much to their children about their painful concentration camp experiences. After this, they both began the process of relating their experiences, so much so that Jaap became a devoted Holocaust educator, speaking to groups, especially of schoolchildren, all around the U.S. In 2000 they published these letters, in a book entitled Steal a Pencil for Me. Director Michele Ohayan was inspired by the letters and their story to create a documentary film of the same title, which was released in 2007. This excellent documentary can be found on Netflix, but here is the trailer.

In reading the book and seeing the documentary, I realized that the story of my friends Jaap and Ina was more complicated than I had known. Jaap fell in love with Ina at first sight when they met at a friend’s birthday party before their internment—but Jaap, 30 years old, was already married. He and his wife Manja had a difficult marriage and were planning to eventually separate, but were staying together during the war to protect each other’s lives. Meanwhile, Ina, 20 years old, was deeply in love with her boyfriend Rudi—but Rudi had been seized in a raid by the Nazis, and Ina had no idea of his fate.

I am the child of immigrants—my parents both left Europe in the 1930s because of the threat of persecution and war. My mother lived through Kristallnacht in Germany as a teenager, and my father’s mother and many other relatives and friends were killed by the Nazis in Poland. So I had, over the years, given thought to writing an opera set during this time, but had not yet found the right tale to tell. Now, as I became more familiar with the biographies of Jaap and Ina I realized that a perfect operatic idea had been right under my nose for more than 20 years. Ina and Jaap Polak’s story was about intimate romantic complications between good people who were very clearly human, brave in their own way, but not heroic. Their personal narrative was set against the larger historical tragedy of the Holocaust, and so was a way of dramatizing that overwhelming historical period, while inspiring a strong connection to the main characters.

I called up Ina and Jaap to tell them I was interested in writing an opera about them. Their first reaction was great astonishment; then Jaap, who was 97 at the time, told me, “Well, write it quickly!”—he wanted to be sure to have a chance for them to see the opera!

Ina and Jaap

Ina and Jaap

My friend and mentor, the dramaturg Cori Ellison, suggested that playwright Deborah Brevoort would be an excellent collaborator for this project—Deborah and I were both recent alumni of the superb Composer-Librettist Development Project of American Lyric Theater. Deborah had many other projects going on, but once she read the letters, she felt that she must be part of telling this story as well.

Normally in writing an opera, one does not get a chance to have direct contact with its principal characters.

Then began one of the extraordinary parts of creating the opera. Normally in writing an opera, one does not get a chance to have direct contact with its principal characters (especially if they are fictional!). We, however, had the very special privilege of spending many hours speaking with Jaap and Ina, getting much rich detail about their lives, the world in which they grew up in Amsterdam before the war, and their experience of deprivation, loss, love, and hope while in the concentration camps. They spoke very openly and honestly about the emotional complications of their story. It was clear that Ina, 70 years later, still deeply felt the loss of her boyfriend Rudi—who had indeed been killed almost as soon as he was taken prisoner, though Ina did not know this until the end of the war. Jaap always had great affection for his first wife Manja, who also survived the war, and he and Ina kept in touch with her for the rest of Manja’s life. They told us about the details of life in Westerbork, where even in their imprisonment there was still a sham normalcy to life, but from where every Tuesday a group of prisoners were selected to be sent away “to the East” never to be heard of again; and about their life in Bergen-Belsen, where prisoners were made to stand each day for hours of endless and senseless roll calls, and many died of disease and from the effects of the hard labor that they were forced to perform.

Deborah and I worked on a scenario of the story, which Jaap and Ina approved, and then Deborah wrote the libretto. Our plan was to present the complete opera in a semi-staged concert version at our synagogue in the Spring of 2013, to celebrate Jaap’s 100th and Ina’s 90th birthdays. And since I only finally began the composition of the music in early 2012, I did indeed need to “write it quickly.” It was very inspiring, while writing the opera, to have regular contact with the “real” characters of the opera. Ina had, in spite of her 90 years, become a quite steady user of the internet, and I would quite often send her email questions about historical or personal details, which she quickly answered.

In writing the opera, I incorporated several musical ideas related to their Dutch and Jewish heritage, including a key scene in which the prisoners’ longing for freedom, while standing in endless roll calls at the concentration camp, is expressed through a collage of music built up from the chanting of the Torah passage about the Jews being freed from Egypt. An important consideration throughout the composition of the opera, both musically and dramatically, was balancing the romantic (and even comic) aspects of the story with the dramatic and tragic—this was a wonderful compositional challenge.

Writing an opera is a big challenge; getting an opera produced when it has not been commissioned by an opera company is another, and perhaps even bigger challenge.

The workshop semi-staged performances were performed in April 2013 at Shaarei Tikvah and at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan. Cori Ellison again was key in this, acting as a casting director and finding a superb, dedicated cast, and in Ari Pelto, a superb conductor. And once again, the presence of the Polaks at this time transformed the process into something quite extraordinary.

The cast met them early in the rehearsals; Jaap and Ina told them many stories and totally charmed everyone (and Jaap flirted with the singers playing his two wives). At the performances, Jaap and Ina sat in the front row. There was a special electricity in room and emotions were heightened as they watched their story portrayed on stage, and for the performers, as they felt Jaap and Ina watching them. I saw Jaap weeping, not surprisingly, at a scene showing his parents being sent on a train to Auschwitz—a scene that he had often described in his talks.

Ilana Davidson, Ina and Jaap Polak,Gerald Cohen, and Robert Balonek

From left to right: Ilana Davidson (who sang the role of Ina), Ina and Jaap Polak,and Robert Balonek (who sang the role of Jaap) with the composer Gerald Cohen in the back.

Writing an opera is a big challenge; getting an opera produced when it has not been commissioned by an opera company is another, and perhaps even bigger challenge. We created this opera knowing that it would have this very special workshop performance, but with no specific path for it to have its premiere production. Ari Pelto, the conductor in 2013, found the opera compelling, and when he soon after became music director of Opera Colorado he championed our opera, and the company decided to mount the premiere production. (Opera Colorado, under the direction of Maestro Pelto and General Director Greg Carpenter, has lately shown a deep commitment to producing new works. The plan for the premiere gave us the opportunity for major revisions and an amended orchestration. As often is the case, the size of the pit determined the size of the orchestra; we decided on a chamber orchestra of 14 players: 6 winds, 6 strings, piano and percussion.)

I had so wanted Ina and Jaap to see the opera in its fully produced form, but unfortunately, Ina and Jaap were no longer alive. Ina, who was a radiant, young 90-year old at our 2013 performance, developed cancer the next year and died in 2014; Jaap died at age 102 in 2015. I am so grateful that they were able to experience the workshop performances.

The Opera Colorado production in January 2018 was everything that Deborah and I could have dreamed for in a premiere production of the opera, with the brilliant musical and directorial leadership of Ari Pelto and Omer Ben Seadia, the beautiful and haunting sets and projections by Francois-Pierre Couture and Hana Kim, and the evocative costumes of Jessica Jahn. The lead roles (Jaap, Ina, and Manja) were movingly portrayed by Gideon Dabi, Inna Dukach, and Adriana Zabala. Opera Colorado’s decision to produce the opera in the 400-seat Wolf Theatre at the Mizel Arts and Culture Center meant that this staging was a very intimate and immediate experience for the audience, which felt very appropriate for this opera.

A scene from the 2018 Opera Colorado production of Steal a Pencil for Me depicting prisoners at Bergen-Belsen (Photo by Matthew Staver/Opera Colorado)

A scene from the 2018 Opera Colorado production of Steal a Pencil for Me depicting prisoners at Bergen-Belsen (Photo by Matthew Staver/Opera Colorado)

Though Ina and Jaap were not able to be present for the production in Denver, their daughter Margrit, who had first brought the letters to light, was there, and spoke at several panel discussions we had in conjunction with the performances. Her presence gave the audiences there the chance to deepen their connection to her parents’ story.

The generation of survivors is growing old, and fairly soon it will be up to subsequent generations to continue to share and remember.

For those Holocaust survivors who have felt able to share their experiences publicly, the motivation is usually to bear witness to what happened in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, so that their stories would be passed on—among other reasons, in hope that this could not happen again. Deborah and I, and so many others, had the great privilege of knowing Jaap, Ina, and other survivors of the Holocaust, but the generation of survivors is growing old, and fairly soon it will be up to subsequent generations to continue to share and remember. We hope that our opera Steal a Pencil for Me, with its tale of everyday survival in the course of the horror of war and imprisonment, and its special origins from a deep personal connection with its main characters, will help to continue to pass on the lessons of that time, the humanity of those who suffered through it, and the memory of those who lost their lives.

Margrit Polak (center) with composer Gerald Cohen (left) and librettist Deborah Brevoort (right) on opening night of the 2018 Opera Colorado production of Steal a Pencil for Me

Margrit Polak (center) with composer Gerald Cohen (left) and librettist Deborah Brevoort (right) on opening night of the 2018 Opera Colorado production of Steal a Pencil for Me.


Comments from Margrit Polak, daughter of Jaap and Ina Polak:

Being at the first opera workshop with my parents in 2013 was a life highlight for me. My father was fairly deaf then so he followed the libretto with his finger, looking up and down between his reading glasses and the stage. I had the feeling it was a life fulfillment for him. The movie gave him so much, but he was an opera lover and felt that opera was the perfect conduit to express the horrors of the concentration camps because of its permission to be big and bold.

With the generations of survivors slowly diminishing the stories must be kept alive, and my mom and dad’s is unique. These are dark times again. We hope they don’t turn darker, but hope keeps us going, as it did them. And it’s a beautiful reminder that love and optimism and life passion can keep you vital even in the darkest times.

Gerald has worked tirelessly to bring the opera to a wider audience and has refined that work to a point where I just hope and pray that it can have many, many more stagings, reaching a large platform of people. And hopefully, it will bring opera into the lives to some who hadn’t appreciated it before. It is such a beautiful work.

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Composer Gerald Cohen has been praised for his “linguistic fluidity and melodic gift,” creating music that “reveals a very personal modernism that…offers great emotional rewards.” (Gramophone Magazine). His deeply affecting compositions have been recognized with numerous awards and critical accolades. According to Gapplegate Music Review, the music on his newly released CD, Sea of Reeds (Navona), “is filled with vibrant melody, rhythmic clarity, drive and compositional construction that show a mastery of and a real sympathy towards the clarinet.”  His opera, Steal a Pencil for Me, based on a true concentration camp... Read more »


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