World Premiere of New American Opera, Steal a Pencil for Me, To Be Presented in Denver
Opera Colorado will present the world premiere of Steal a Pencil for Me by composer Gerald Cohen and librettist Deborah Brevoort in January 2018.
A moving love story based on the real-life experiences of a Dutch man, the woman he loves, and his estranged wife, Steal a Pencil for Me chronicles the trio’s struggle to survive in two Nazi concentration camps. The secret lovers exchange passionate letters written with stolen pencil stubs, keeping their hopes and hearts alive in a time of darkness. Steal a Pencil for Me will be presented January 25–30, 2018, at the Elaine Wolf Theatre at the Mizel Arts and Culture Center (MACC) in Denver.
The production marks the second world premiere for the company in two years, following the debut of The Scarlet Letter in May 2016, and will be the first world premiere to be presented as part of Scene Change, Opera Colorado’s new venture presenting opera outside the traditional grand opera house setting. The premiere of Steal a Pencil for Me will be directed by Omer Ben Seadia in her Opera Colorado debut and conducted by Music Director Ari Pelto. Inna Dukach, Gideon Dabi, and Adriana Zabala portray the love triangle’s respective roles of Ina Soep, Jaap Polak, and his wife Manja Polak.
“Supporting new American opera is core to our artistic vision. We believe it is vital for artists to test new ideas and continue to innovate within the opera form,” said Greg Carpenter, General Director of Opera Colorado. “We are proud to premiere Steal a Pencil for Me, and to be a creative partner in realizing an insightful depiction of this poignant story of three lives that intersect during one of the most horrific moments in history.”
Opera Colorado’s Music Director Ari Pelto worked closely with Gerald Cohen and Deborah Brevoort to develop Steal a Pencil for Me—including guiding semi-staged presentations in advance of the Opera Colorado premiere.
“In telling the story, it is crucial to avoid caricature, both for the Jews and the Nazis. This is not a story of outsized characters and deeds, or villains and heroes,” said Pelto. “Ina, Jaap, and Manja wrestle with the challenges, complications, and emotions of life, love, and partnership. We aim to create an intimate and natural connection between the three leads against the backdrop of the war.”
In 1943, Jaap and Ina were introduced by a mutual friend in Amsterdam. Six months later, Ina, Jaap, and his wife Manja were taken to the Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands. The trio spent 15 months together in Westerbork, and in Bergen-Belsen in Germany. Jaap and Manja divorced in August 1945, after their liberation. Japp and Ina married the following year, moving to the United States shortly thereafter where they settled in Westchester, NY. Manja Polak never remarried.
Composer Gerald Cohen developed a close friendship with Jaap and Ina Polak over the course of nearly 30 years. Their love letters were published in 2000, Steal a Pencil for Me: Love Letters from Camp Bergen-Belsen and Westerbork. Their full story was the subject of a documentary broadcast on the PBS series Independent Lens in 2007. With their blessing, Cohen began developing Steal a Pencil for Me in 2011; he and librettist Deborah Brevoort interviewed Jaap and Ina many times in the process of creating the opera, which was presented in a semi-staged workshop in 2013 with Ina and Jaap in attendance.
“My parents were World War II refugees, and for a long time I contemplated creating an opera set during the Holocaust because of this personal connection,” Cohen said. “I had always loved Jaap and Ina’s story, but it was upon seeing the documentary for the second time that the idea of creating an opera about it really came together. Their experience presents an unexpectedly optimistic story that I felt needed to be told. I hope Steal a Pencil for Me inspires audiences to see the power of love and the human spirit, even in dreadful situations that can seem hopeless.”
Jaap Polak helped found the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect (formerly named Anne Frank Center USA), where he was chairman emeritus. He was knighted by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in 1992 for his work in sharing lessons from his Holocaust experience. After 68 years of marriage, Ina died in 2014. Jaap passed away just eight months later.
“What stood out to me in this beautiful tale was how important stories were to Ina and Jaap’s survival,” said Brevoort. “Every day they would meet behind the barracks to imagine what their future life could be. It was a simple story that they imagined for themselves—of ordinary breakfasts, and butter for the bread—but it nevertheless held great power and ultimately enabled them to survive. When everything is taken away, only the essential remains.”
Excerpts from Steal a Pencil for Me will be presented by the American Lyric Theater in New York on April 23 at the Morgan Library and on April 26 at the Jewish Theological Seminary (Broadway at 122nd Street), where Cohen will be participating in a moderated discussion with composer Laura Kaminsky about their creative process.