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Son of Holocaust survivors conducts world premiere of ‘Anne Frank’ opera

Team of Jewish creatives conceived the opera, commissioned by Jacobs School of Music

Jan 18, 2023

“I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.” — from “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl”

Rena and Lewis Fagen shown with Schindler's List director Steven Spielberg, center. Photo courtesy of the Fagen... Rena and Lewis Fagen shown with "Schindler's List" director Steven Spielberg, center. Photo courtesy of the Fagen family

Indiana University presents the world premiere of “Anne Frank,” an original opera commissioned by the Jacobs School of Music. The opera was conceived, written and composed by a team of renowned Jewish creatives, including Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Shulamit Ran, librettist Charles Kondek and conductor Arthur Fagen, professor of music and co-chair of the Jacobs School of Music Department of Orchestral Conducting.

For Fagen, the project hit close to home. His parents lived in Krakow, Poland, when the Nazis came to power. Fagen’s mother, Rena, was a prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Fagen’s parents narrowly escaped death thanks to German industrialist Oskar Schindler, the inspiration behind the title character of Steven Spielberg’s 1994 Academy Award-winning film “Schindler’s List.”

“For those who have seen the film, it really is the story of my parents’ lives,” Fagen said. “They witnessed the horrors of the concentration camps. Because they were on Schindler’s list, they were saved.”

Schindler saved the lives of approximately 1,100 Jews by employing them in his factories. What began as a business person’s endeavor to find inexpensive labor ultimately became a mission to save innocent lives. Schindler’s good-standing relationship with the Nazi party allowed him to leverage protection for those employed in his facilities. He created a high number of jobs, many of which were a sham, in order to protect as many people as possible.

Arthur Fagen. Photo courtesy of the Jacobs School of Music Arthur Fagen. Photo courtesy of the Jacobs School of Music

“My mother was doing munitions, but instead of putting gunpowder in the bullets, she was putting talcum powder,” Fagen said. “It was a completely phony operation. Schindler was really putting his life at risk by doing that.”

Fagen’s parents kept in touch with Schindler after the war. He visited them in the United States when Fagen was a young boy. Schindler later helped Fagen when he was 21 years old and just beginning his career at the Frankfurt Opera in 1972, referring him to a doctor and taking him to lunch several times.

“I think he felt somehow responsible that I was alive,” Fagen said.

Since those early days, Fagen has gone on to conduct more than 100 opera productions at the world’s most prestigious opera houses and music festivals. In addition to his work at the Jacobs School of Music, he serves as music director of the Atlanta Opera. Throughout his illustrious career, Fagen has made efforts to shine a spotlight on the atrocities of the Holocaust.

From left, George Schek, Adel Gerner, unidentified man, Bella Schonthal (mother of Rena Fagen), Oskar Schindler, Rena Fagen, Lewis Fagen ... From left, George Schek, Adel Gerner, unidentified man, Bella Schonthal (mother of Rena Fagen), Oskar Schindler, Rena Fagen, Lewis Fagen (kneeling), Paula Gerner and Herman Rosner in 1957 on Long Island, New York. Photo courtesy of the Fagen family

“As a son of Holocaust survivors, part of my mission as a musician has been, whenever it was in my power, to create events that reminded us of the Holocaust,” Fagen said. “It’s something that I hope to continue to do as long as I’m working. I think of all the events that I’ve been involved with, in some ways, this is the biggest one.”

The journey to produce the story of Anne Frank as a full-scale opera began in 2008. Arthur Fagen’s colleague at the Atlanta Opera, Dennis Hanthorn, initiated the idea. Both he and Fagen believed the renowned Shulamit Ran should compose the opera.

Ran won the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1991. She is the Andrew MacLeish Distinguished Service Professor Emerita at the University of Chicago. Fagen met Ran when he conducted her first opera, “Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk)” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1997.

Image of the book cover of The Diary of a Young Girl: Anne Frank. A copy of “The Diary of a Young Girl: Anne Frank” is displayed at the Anne Frank Center USA in New York City. Photo courtesy of Getty Images

With a team assembled, they set out to obtain the rights to “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl,” a process that began with the Anne Frank Fonds, the official foundation devoted to global distribution and utilization of the diary.

The diary, written by 13-year-old Frank while hiding with her family from the Nazis in Amsterdam, first published in June 1947 and has since been translated in 70 different languages. Anne’s father, Otto Frank, was the only family member to survive the concentration camps. He made it his mission thereafter to publish and disseminate his daughter’s written account of her life while in hiding. Otto Frank founded the Anne Frank Fonds in January 1963.

Buddy Elias, Anne Frank’s cousin who found refuge during the war with his family in Basel, Switzerland, was president of the Anne Frank Fonds when Fagen and his colleagues sought permission to write the opera. Fagen had a friend and colleague who knew Elias, and they arranged to meet Elias and his wife, Gerti, at their home in Basel.

“There had never been permission for a mainstage opera production of the diary,” Fagen said. “There have been smaller projects — chamber operas and plays. After spending the day with Buddy, and him hearing of my family’s history, he was sympathetic to the idea of Shulamit writing the opera and my conducting.”

Shulamit Ran. Photo courtesy of Valerie Booth Shulamit Ran. Photo courtesy of Valerie Booth

Upon receiving the rights from Anne Frank Fonds, the creative group agreed to remain true to the diary. Fagen said many scenes are written straight from the diary, with scenes of the concentration camp interspersed throughout.

Anne Slovin, a fourth-year student pursuing her Doctor of Music in voice performance at the Jacobs School, is one of two performers playing the role of Anne Frank.

“Believe it or not, even though I’m Jewish, I had never read Anne’s diary before, so that has been a major part of my preparation,” Slovin said. “Through plays, films and now opera, Anne Frank has become a symbol of hope and resilience to so many people, when the truth is, her situation was almost hopeless. Reading her diary, I discovered how much of that despair she actually experienced while she and her family were in hiding.”

Slovin said she appreciates that Ran and Kondek remind the audience of the eventual fate of the characters throughout the opera.

Anne Slovin. Photo by Sarah J. Slover Anne Slovin. Photo by Sarah J. Slover

“Throughout the piece, the audience will see and hear an ensemble of concentration camp prisoners who recite the names and hometowns of other victims of the Holocaust,” Slovin said.

The premiere comes at a time when antisemitism has increased across the world. The Anti-Defamation League released a report stating that antisemitic incidents, including harassment, vandalism and assault, increased by 34 percent throughout the United States in 2021. Numbers from 2022, once released, are expected to be higher than in previous years as well.

Those involved with the production of “Anne Frank” hope the opera will shine a light on both the horrors of antisemitism and the opportunity for individuals to combat hate.

“I think when audiences go see the opera of Anne Frank, they will see it through the eyes of this very sensitive young girl and what she went through,” Fagen said. “I am hoping that they will think about certain tendencies today — racist, xenophobic tendencies — that if adopted by a government could possibly result in a similar situation.”

Slovin said she hopes audiences will be inspired to learn more about vibrant Jewish culture.

“The best thing we can do in the face of rising antisemitism is to celebrate Jewish life,” Slovin said. “I think a lot about what Anne Frank would have done with the rest of her life had she been allowed to live it. This opera will certainly open some audience members’ eyes to the horrors of the Holocaust, but more importantly, I hope that people will learn more about Jewish culture, art and tradition, which is rich, vibrant and constantly thriving in the face of adversity.”

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IU Newsroom

Julia Hodson

Communications Consultant, Strategic Communications

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