OC Stories: How to Create a World Premiere
By Ari Pelto
Three years ago, at this very moment in January, we were immersed in rehearsals for the world premiere of Steal a Pencil for Me on the stage of the Wolf Theatre at the JCC in Denver. Omer Ben Seadia and her team of designers created a concept to bring the true stories of Jaap and Ina Polak to the stage. Let’s go back a bit and I will explain how we got to January 2018.
When It Was Just an Idea
In spring 2013, I received an email from the eminent dramaturg Cori Ellison. I knew Cori from my time conducting at New York City Opera. She wrote that she had a project she thought I might be interested in. Composer Gerald Cohen and librettist Deborah Brevoort were planning to workshop a new opera adapted from the book and documentary, Steal a Pencil for Me.
Jaap and Ina Polak were Dutch Jews who fell in love while prisoners, first at the Nazi labor camp of Westerbork in Holland and then the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. In 2013, 78 years after the liberation of the camps, the two were very much alive. Jaap (100) and Ina (90) were congregants at the Shaarei Tikvah synagogue in Scarsdale, NY, where Gerald Cohen was the Cantor. He was well-acquainted with the couple and had wanted to write an opera telling their story for years.
After talking to Cori and hearing Jaap and Ina’s story, I knew this was a project I had to be part of. The workshop involved a cast of singers from New York, a small chorus drawn from the City Opera Chorus, and four musicians—a pianist, violinist, clarinetist, and cellist. After two weeks of intensive work, we performed the opera at the synagogue with Jaap and Ina in the front row! It was an extraordinary experience for all of us, and extremely emotional, I think especially for Jaap and Ina.
Steal A Pencil for Me Comes to Opera Colorado
Fast forward a couple of years. Greg Carpenter and I were discussing possibilities for projects outside of the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. We wanted to produce something exceptional, but on a small scale. I suggested producing Steal a Pencil for Me. The performance in New York had not been staged. It was only a musical performance with a few props and some very minimal movement. To create a full production would take a visionary director. I had just worked with Omer in San Francisco and knew she would have the perfect combination of imagination and heart to take on the challenge.
Over the course of the next year and a half, she and I collaborated with Gerald and Deborah, sitting in diners in NYC editing, kibitzing, and finalizing the shape of the piece. Because the pit at the Wolf Theater is quite small, Greg and I asked Gerald to write an orchestration of the score for 14 instruments. The chorus for that stage would have to be small as well, and still somehow create the environment of the camps.
What about supers and stagehands? No space for that. How would we create different locations on the stage, and the trains that transported the prisoners? Omer was tasked with figuring out how that was all going to work. In the end—those of you who saw the production will remember—the cast and chorus were the stagehands. The ingenious set design and lighting created the sense of each location in a way that we never imagined would be possible in that space.
It is a little hard for me to believe this happened only three years ago. It was such an intense and rich experience for us all. Five years after receiving that first email, and after so much collaboration with so many people (and so many bagels with cream cheese), we finally gave Opera Colorado’s world premiere of Steal a Pencil for Me on January 25, 2018. I am grateful for this exciting moment of innovation in our company’s history and look forward to many more to come, including our new chamber series that I will curate with the Opera Colorado Orchestra musicians later this spring.
Interested in getting to know the artists who brought this production to life? Check out these interviews with the stars of Steal a Pencil for Me:
Did you attend Steal a Pencil for Me? What was your favorite moment? Do you have other favorite innovative moments from Opera Colorado’s history? Let us know in the comments below.