Holocaust victims opera stored for years in trunk gets premiere at last – The Guardian

Posted By on February 17, 2022

An opera score retrieved from a San Francisco basement has had its world premiere in a German theatre, exuberantly brought to life by more than 150 musicians and performers nearly 80 years after its composer was murdered by the Nazis.

Grete Minde, a late-romantic opera of 1920s jazz-inspired melodies and large orchestral sounds, was the work of Eugen Engel, a Berlin-based Jewish textile tradesman in his day job, who gave his handwritten sheet music to his daughter for safekeeping when she escaped to the United States in 1941.

He waited in vain for permission to follow her but was killed in Sobibor extermination camp on 26 March 1943, at the age of 67, after his arrest in Amsterdam.

We kept his papers in a trunk for years but it was too painful for my mother to take them out, so we never really engaged with them, though I always knew there was an opera score there, said Jan Agee, Engels granddaughter.

She didnt realise their significance until after her mother Evas death in 2006, when she was contacted by the Jewish Museum Berlin looking for documents for its archives.

Agee travelled with her brother and daughter from California to eastern Germany and the Theater Magdeburg for the first live performance of Grete Minde, a rousing spectacle that veers between comedy and tragedy and has left critics full of praise.

It has everything you may wish from an opera, involving the entire ensemble, a heart-stopping storyline touching on the dream of a better, fairer life versus the dogma and bigotry of bourgeois society, accompanied with gorgeous sounds and catchy rhythms, wrote Die Zeits music critic Hannah Schmidt.

Talking backstage after the performance, which received standing ovations, Megan Agee, Engels great-granddaughter said: It is quite overwhelming to have these written words and notes which have been dormant for so long brought to life. Its like Eugen Engel planted a seed back then but until it was performed we did not know exactly what that was. We are amazed and grateful for the abundance of what has emerged.

Her uncle Claude Lowen, Engels 84-year-old grandson, said: These musicians today are giving voice to my grandfather as well as to all the many other musicians who were murdered, many cut off before they were able to show their full potential.

The opera has further performances in Magdeburg in February and March and the family said they were hopeful it would be performed elsewhere around the world, with several concert venues having already reached out to the German theatre.

Jan Agee, 74, said her mother never got over the feeling she had left her father behind. She said: She had an upright piano waiting for him for when he would finally arrive in the United States. But he never did, and it was her greatest wish to have his music performed. My biggest regret is that she is no longer here to experience this.

Anna Skryleva, a Russian conductor who became the general music director of Theater Magdeburg in 2019, first became interested in Engel at a performance of some of his works at the unveiling of a brass plaque engraved with brief details about his life and death. The stolperstein, or stumbling stone, is set in the pavement of Charlottenstrasse 74, his Berlin address, which was destroyed in a bombing raid.

She took a copy of the piano arrangement of the opera home and played it. I was immediately captured, she said. It is replete with interesting harmonious expressions and stylistic phrases. I was struck by its touches of Wagner, Strauss and Korngold, by the confidence of a layperson to write such an ambitious work.

The musicians a large ensemble including an organ, two harps, strings and brass, a female choir and solo singers were enthusiastic supporters of the project, Skryleva said. We are all at great pains to do Engel justice, seeing him as representative of the many composers we never got to know.

Little is known of Engels life or how he taught himself to compose. His wider body of work includes chamber music, lieder and quartets. Working on the opera was a sideline as he earned money as a buyer of fabric for womens coats on behalf of a large Berlin department store.

He was friends with leading musicians in Berlin including the composer Engelbert Humperdinck and the conductors Bruno Walter and Leo Blech, as recorded in extensive letters between them found in the trunk. Engel would trawl music shops with his daughter and regularly took scores with him to study line by line during opera concerts.

The dozens of letters on thin paper that he sent to his daughter after she went to the USremain among the familys most precious possessions.

He typed them; then, when he was forbidden from buying typewriter ribbon, he continued them by hand, Agee said. In the last one, via the Red Cross, dated 20 March 1943, he wrote: My dear children, I am healthy and well and think of you often.

Skryleva and Ulrike Schrder, Theater Magdeburgs chief dramatic adviser, oversaw the painstaking transcription by external experts of more than 40 individual voice and instrument parts, making use of the shutdown during the pandemic to do so. The entire production cost more than 110,000 to stage.

We believe he spent almost 20 years composing the opera, working on it in his spare time, said Schrder, who has attempted to piece together as much of Engels life as possible. The libretto was written in 1914 and this might have been the starting point.

By the time hed finished the opera in 1933, the Nazis were in power, but he kept trying to get it on stage even as his life was in danger. Even if he hadnt been Jewish it would have been hard for him to get it on the stage as a non-professional, but the rise of Hitler made it absolutely impossible, Schrder said.

Engel was one of about 13 siblings, most of whom are thought to have been murdered by the Nazi regime. But Schrder said she would be cautious about reading too much into Engels choice of source material Grete Minde, by the writer Theodor Fontane, which is based on the true 16th-century story of a young woman who is deprived of her rightful inheritance by officials in her home town and takes her revenge by setting fire to it and burning to death herself and her child.

Nevertheless, she said, a modern audience watching as the town goes up in flames would not be able to avoid drawing parallels between the fate of Grete Minde, who is treated as an outsider, and the decimation of the Jews.

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Holocaust victims opera stored for years in trunk gets premiere at last - The Guardian

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