REVIEWS AND FEATURES:
Opera preview by Julie Moran Alterio:
Love Endures in New Opera
Singer Robert Balonek, who plays Jack, said preparing for the role has been emotional.
“It took me a couple of times to read through it to sing along because it was just so moving,” he said. “It’s rare that an opera singer gets to meet and interact with someone who they are playing.”
Ilana Davidson, who plays Ina, said the story shows that something beautiful can bloom amid horror.
“It’s an honor, but it’s also a gift to be able to put yourself in a situation through music that’s happened so recently and that’s so important never to forget,” she said.
Opera preview by George Robinson:
A Shoah Story Fit for the Opera
Three years ago, Cohen approached the Polaks and asked if he could try to set the story. They were, Cohen admits, a bit surprised. Jack turned 100 and Ina 90 in January. Jack, consequently, had one piece of advice for the composer: “Write it quickly.”
So Cohen and librettist Deborah Brevoort set to work.
“We spoke a long time how to structure the opera,” he recalls. “The idea of writing about living people I know is complicated. I spent quite a bit of time talking to Jack and Ina to get as much of the detail and flavor of their lives [in the Westerbork transit camp and Bergen-Belsen], how they met, all these things. And they were amazing to talk to.”
Featured interview on WQXR’s Operavore with Naomi Lewin (Audio podcast):
Opera Based on Real-Life Holocaust Survivors to Premiere
It’s not often that a composer and librettist can consult with the characters who inspire an opera. But that was exactly the case with Steal a Pencil for Me, which gets its premiere this month. It’s about Jaap and Ina Polak, a real-life Jewish couple from the Netherlands who survived the Holocaust. Host Naomi Lewin spoke with the composer, Gerald Cohen, and the librettist, Deborah Brevoort.
It’s a story straight out of Hollywood, except that it’s true. Jaap Polak survived the Nazi death camps with his wife and his girlfriend – barely. Tuesday night at the Jewish Theological Seminary auditorium, their improbable story was brought to life in chilling detail in a semi-staged performance of the new opera Steal a Pencil for Me, with music by Gerald Cohen and book by Deborah Brevoort. The narrative, vividly portrayed via both music and dialogue, is rich with cruel irony and grim humor but also the irrepressible joie de vivre that kept Polak, his wife Manja and girlfriend Ina alive despite staggering odds against them. It has a happy ending, which at this performance moved several audience members to tears.
Jaap Polak, now 100, and his wife Ina, now 90, reside in Scarsdale, and attend the congregation where Cohen is cantor, a connection that springboarded the opera. Both husband and wife were in the audience, and remain sharp as a whistle. Two years from now, they will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary. That such a thing would be possible considering that the former Amsterdam residents were kidnapped by the Nazis, first sent to the Westerbork transit camp and then on to Bergen-Belsen in 1944 defies the imagination. Beth Greenberg’s stage direction was understated and fit the material – one doesn’t expect dancing in a piece about the Holocaust. Baritone Robert Balonek was fervent and winningly steadfast in his portrayal of the irrepressible Jaap. Soprano Ilana Davidson radiated hope against hope that transcended the aptly drab costuming (everyone has a yellow Star of David pinned to their coats). Among the supporting cast, soprano Cherry Duke brought a sardonic edge to her role as semi-reliable interlocutor, passing furtive love notes between Jaap and Ina.
For many years, Gerald Cohen, the cantor at Shaarei Tikvah Congregation in Scarsdale, wanted to write an opera about the Holocaust. In the interim, he’d composed a two-act opera about Sara and Hagar and a shorter one about a post-apocalyptic Adam and Eve but capturing the Shoah remained a fixed goal. He waited until he hit upon an approach to the subject, which would strike his audiences as novel and riveting.
Ironically the key he’d searched for was in front of him for twenty-five years. Set in Amsterdam during the Nazi era, the unorthodox love story of his good friends and congregants, Ina and Jack Polak, combined all the elements of great opera: life, death, war and forbidden love. Once this realization struck him, his opera, (composed with librettist Deborah Brevoort), flowed. In the space of a year, just in time for Ina’s 90th and Jack’s 100th birthday celebrations, the work was ready to be presented. On April 28th at Shaarei Tikvah on Fox Meadow Road, and April 30th at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, “Steal a Pencil for Me,” had its first staged readings.
“Last week I witnessed the second performance of Gerald Cohen’s new Opera, Steal a Pencil For Me at JTS. It was a great experience! I found the music hypnotic. At this stage, it was scored for piano, violin, cello and clarinet, so skillfully, that at times it sounded like an orchestra. The singers were world class, with the astonishing Ilana Davidson playing the female lead. The excellent libretto by Deborah Brevoort, was brought forth by brilliant lyric diction by the singers, and the conductor, Ari Pelto, was wonderful. The audience was filled with many of New York’s musical intelligentsia, as Gerald has already built up a reputation. My friends, this is the work of a Master. I truly believe this musically passionate man carries the line of such great Jewish Composers such as Copland and Bernstein.”
Cantor Jack Mendelson, http://cantorjackmendelson.com
“Thank you for the beautiful gift to the Polaks and to those of us in the audience last night. What a memorable evening! The glorious score, fine musicianship (the 4 instrumentalists were superb–I never missed a full orchestra– and the singers were outstanding), and of course, the powerful story. King Solomon had it right: “Love IS stronger than death. Having the Polaks in the audience was ever so moving.”
Carol K. Ingall, Ed.D
Dr. Bernard Heller Professor Emerita of Jewish Education
The Jewish Theological Seminary
“I have to tell you that I woke up thinking about the opera. It was a completely compelling and thrilling performance and I am truly dazzled by your music. And the story of course! One of the occupational hazards of being so Jewishly-entrenched is “Holocaust fatigue.” I think that we often are at danger of missing great cultural offerings because we assume we have seen something similar. Steal a Pencil for Me is unlike ANYTHING I have ever seen. Being able to see it in an audience with the inspirations for it was incredibly moving…Thank you for inspiring and uplifting me!”
Shira Dicker, SHIRA DICKER MEDIA INTERNATIONAL
Creative Communication Consultants