An opera score salvaged from a basement in San Francisco had its world premiere in a German theater, exuberantly enlivened by more than 150 musicians and performers nearly 80 years after its composer was assassinated by the Nazis.
Grete Minde, a late romantic opera of 1920s jazz-inspired melodies and grand orchestral sounds, was the work of Eugen Engel, a Jewish textile trader based in Berlin in his day job, who gave his handwritten score her daughter to look after when she escaped to the United States in 1941.
He waited in vain for permission to follow her but was killed at the Sobibor extermination camp on March 26, 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 mum to get them out, so we never really engaged with them, although I always knew there was a opera score there,” said Jan Agee, Engel’s granddaughter.
She only realized their significance after the death of her mother Eva in 2006, when she was contacted by the Jewish Museum in Berlin seeking material for its archive.
Agee traveled with his brother and daughter from California to eastern Germany and to the Magdeburg Theater for the first live performance by Grete Minde, a lively show that oscillates between comedy and tragedy and which has won critical acclaim.
“It has everything you could want from an opera, involving the whole ensemble, a breathtaking story evoking the dream of a better and fairer life against the dogma and bigotry of bourgeois society. , accompanied by beautiful sounds and driving beats,” wrote Die Zeit music critic Hannah Schmidt.
Speaking backstage after the show, which received standing ovations, Megan Agee, Engel’s great-granddaughter, said: ‘It’s quite overwhelming to see these sleeping written words and notes come to life for so long. It’s like Eugen Engel planted a seed back then, but until it was played, we didn’t know exactly what it was. We are amazed and grateful for the abundance of what has emerged.
His uncle Claude Lowen, Engel’s 84-year-old grandson, said: “These musicians today give voice to my grandfather and to all the many other musicians who were murdered, including many were cut before they could show their full potential.”
The opera has further performances in Magdeburg in February and March and the family said they hope it will be performed elsewhere in the world, with several concert halls having already contacted the German theatre.
Jan Agee, 74, said her mother never got over feeling she had ‘abandoned her father’. She said: “She had an upright piano waiting for her when it finally arrived in the States. But he never did, and it was his greatest wish to have his music performed. My biggest regret is that she is no longer there to experience this.
Anna Skryleva, a Russian conductor who became general music director of the Magdeburg Theater in 2019, first became interested in Engel during a performance of some of his works at the unveiling of an engraved brass plaque brief details of his life and death. the Stolpersteinor “stumbling block”, is engraved on the sidewalk of Charlottenstrasse 74, his Berlin address, which was destroyed during a bombardment.
She took a copy of the piano arrangement from the opera home and played it. “I was immediately captured,” she said. “It is full of interesting harmonious expressions and stylistic phrases. I was struck by his touches of Wagner, Strauss and Korngold, by the confidence of a layman 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 all strive to do justice to Engel, seeing him as the representative of the many composers we have never known.”
Little is known of Engel’s life or how he learned to compose. His larger body of work includes chamber music, lieder and quartets. Working on the opera was a sideline as he made money as a buyer of fabric for women’s coats for a Berlin department store.
He was friends with prominent musicians in Berlin, including composer Engelbert Humperdinck and conductors Bruno Walter and Leo Blech, as noted in numerous letters between them found in the trunk. Engel scoured music stores with his daughter and regularly took sheet music with him to study line by line at opera concerts.
The dozens of thin paper letters he sent to his daughter after she left for the United States are some of the family’s most prized possessions.
“He typed them; then, when he was forbidden to buy typewriter ribbon, he continued them by hand,” Agee said. In the last, via the Red Cross, dated March 20, 1943, he wrote: “My dear children, I am well and I often think of you.
Skryleva and Ulrike Schröder, Chief Dramatic Advisor of Theater Magdeburg, oversaw the painstaking transcription by external experts of more than 40 individual voice and instrument parts, taking advantage of the pandemic shutdown. The entire production cost more than €110,000 to direct.
“We believe he spent nearly 20 years composing the opera, working on it in his spare time,” said Schröder, who has attempted to piece together as much of Engel’s life as possible. “The libretto was written in 1914 and that could have been the starting point.”
By the time he had finished the opera in 1933, the Nazis were in power, but he kept trying to get him on stage even when his life was in danger. “Even if he hadn’t been Jewish, it would have been difficult for him to get on stage as a non-professional, but the rise of Hitler made that absolutely impossible,” Schröder said.
Engel was one of 13 siblings, most of whom were believed to have been murdered by the Nazi regime. But Schröder said she would be careful not to read too much into Engel’s choice of source material – Grete Minde, by writer Theodor Fontane, which is based on the 16th-century true story of a young woman who is deprived of her rightful inheritance by officials. in her hometown and takes revenge by setting fire to it and burning herself and her child.
Still, she said, a modern audience watching the city go up in flames could not avoid drawing parallels between the plight of Grete Minde, who is treated like an outsider, and the decimation of the Jews.