Steal A Pencil For Me: Meet Maestro Ari Pelto

Opera Colorado Music Director Ari Pelto. Photo: Kelly Maxwell/Opera Colorado

By Kelly Maxwell

The world premiere of Steal a Pencil for Me opens this Thursday evening—and few people know better than Opera Colorado Music Director Ari Pelto the long and exciting process of getting this new opera ready for the stage. Over the past five years, he’s spent countless hours working through the piece with composer Gerald Cohen and librettist Deborah Brevoort, then working with stage director Omer Ben Seadia and her creative team as they got the production ready. And now, after a breakneck rehearsal schedule over the past month, Pelto is thrilled for Opera Colorado audiences who are just days away from experiencing the beautiful music and powerful message of Steal a Pencil for Me. Today we check in with Pelto about his experiences with this opera. Read on, and then come back to the blog every day this week for more from the artists of Steal a Pencil for Me!

You’ve been involved with Steal a Pencil for Me since its early days, when you conducted those initial workshops and decided to help bring a full production to Opera Colorado. Can you walk us through your involvement, from the very beginning to this upcoming world premiere?

It’s been almost exactly a five-year journey from the moment I first held the Steal a Pencil for Me piano vocal score in my hands and started working with Gerald Cohen, Deborah Brevoort, and the cast in New York City. The cast was primarily New York freelancers, associated with New York City Opera. Cori Ellison, a dramaturg of international note and importance, helped put it together. That first workshop only lasted two weeks. The process then evolved to making it fit our image of what we could produce here at Opera Colorado, in the Elaine Wolf Theatre, in 2018. So, it’s been a living organism for five years.

In New York, Gerald, Deborah, and I would sit down and discuss the piece, usually in Jewish delicatessens, of course, and talk about the elements in the piece. Then Gerald and Deborah went back to the drawing board. There were endless hours of composition for Gerald, re-thinking elements, and then sending the changes to me. It was a long, dynamic process, and truth be told, those things couldn’t happen without a robust sense of collaboration.

I think it was about three years ago that Greg Carpenter, General Director of Opera Colorado, and I said, “We’re going to program this and put it in the 17-18 season.” That meant immediately deciding on who was going to be involved. The very first person to get involved besides me was, of course, Stage Director Omer Ben Seadia. For more than two years, she has been a huge part of this conversation and imagining how the piece will be produced. Fortunately, when she read the score, she was immediately incredibly excited about it. Later, she put together her creative team and they had their own long set of discussions, with more than a year of exploration and imagining something quite big. On a relatively small stage, in a small theatre, how do you put on something as big as the Holocaust? It’s a daunting and sort of crazy thing to think about doing.

From the moment we started planning, we knew the Opera Colorado Young Artists would have a very big role in the production. Most of them were cast as principal roles. Additionally, our eight chorus members all share the incredible burden and responsibility of this piece. Then, later in New York, we auditioned for the three leads and chose our cast. We’re extremely excited and feel very lucky to have them. They spent time with their scores over the course of months. Gerald started working on the orchestration, and since the pit at the Wolf Theatre can only fit so many people, we decided on 14 total players. Scene by scene, he would send me sketches of what he was doing and he completed the orchestration.

Then, after three years, we finally came to the rehearsal process. We started with just a musical rehearsal or two, coaching with singers and piano with Repetiteur and Chorus Master Sahar Nouri. She’s been invaluable. Then, the orchestra musicians got involved and, let me just say, those 14 players all have incredibly challenging, difficult, and exciting parts. Everyone is a soloist. Putting it all together has been a very exciting and nerve-racking moment. After five years, here we are days from opening. It feels very intense!

L to R: Soprano Inna Dukach (Ina Soep), baritone Gideon Dabi (Jaap Polak), and mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala (Manja Polak). Photo: Kelly Maxwell/Opera Colorado

Steal a Pencil for Me is part of Opera Colorado’s Scene Change program, which aims to bring opera to all corners of our community by performing in venues outside of the traditional opera house setting. So audiences will experience Steal a Pencil for Me not at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House but at the more intimate Wolf Theatre at the Mizel Arts and Culture Center. What’s been your experience rehearsing in this different space, and why do you think it’s the right setting for this kind of opera?

I think the most obvious difference and the way it’s going to change people’s experiences is simply that it’s such an intimate space, seating 400. Compare it to the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, which is made for grand opera, and I think people will have an entirely different experience. I believe people are going to feel a little bit more like they’re going to the theatre or going to see an Off-Broadway show, where it’s an intimate and intensely personal experience. I think people are going to have a much more intense experience because they’re going to feel right on top of the performers. In turn, the performers are going to feel right on top of them as well. And in a certain sense, I think that there’s no barrier there. In a big opera house, a barrier can be created by distance, supertitles, or hearing something in Italian, or lots of other things. I think in every possible way, this show is going to feel very present, very personal, and very intense.

The cast of Steal a Pencil for Me. Photo: Opera Colorado/Matthew Staver

It sounds like, given the incredibly powerful subject matter—love and hope in the darkest of times, during the Holocaust—and the intimate venue, audiences are going to really feel the emotion of this piece.

I’m sure of that. It’s very emotional. Gerald’s music is, first of all, full of heart. He composes with a great heart because he’s a man with a great heart and he had such a connection to the characters in the opera [having personally known the real-life Jaap and Ina Polak]. He has such an admiration for them and it comes out in his composition. What’s interesting about his composition is how much of it is frightening and super intense, and then there are moments of great simplicity. These are not traditional operatic heroes; they’re just lucky people who found a way to survive the camps and keep their humanity in the process. All of this happened through a flawed love affair, which is really a part of life. That is something that people will relate to through Gerald’s wonderful, lyrical music.

Later this spring, you’ll also conduct Opera Colorado’s production of Falstaff. But what else will be keeping you busy in 2018?

So, when we close Steal a Pencil for Me, I pretty quickly go to Virginia to do La fanciulla del West. I’ll be back and forth a little bit, but that takes me all the way to when we start Falstaff rehearsals. But right before I go to Virginia, the family is going to Paris for a week. My son, who’s only four, is in a French program at an international school. So his whole day is in French, and my wife and I just use that as an excuse to say we need to go let him practice his French in Paris! Then in the summer we’ll all be back in Italy for about six weeks doing Puccini’s La rondine. And then in the fall, we’ll have a new season at Opera Colorado. So it’ll be a full year of exciting adventures.

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