Tag: contemporary American opera

Towards a Framework for Responsible Trans Casting Part 3: The Writers

A woman in a black shirt posing in front of a purple background

This is Part 3 of a four-part series. Part 1 introduces many of the terms and concepts used in this piece, and Part 2 offers the perspectives of performers. This article will make more sense if you read those first.


Before an actor can bring a character to life, someone has to write that character into existence.

Before an actor can bring a character to life, someone has to write that character into existence. Who are the trans writers bringing trans stories into the world, and how do they handle trans issues in their work? This article starts to provide an answer.

Barriers to Entry

Let’s start with the undeniable: the interviewees for this article are, as a group, much whiter and more NYC-centric than those in the previous installment.[1] I have no doubt that there are many brilliant, diverse trans writers that I simply have not been able to find in my research, but I also believe that these skewed demographics reflect deeper systemic issues.

I suspect these disparities are especially marked on the composition side because vastly fewer people are taught to write music than are taught to write words. The classical composition world is well known for being hostile to those facing some form of marginalization, and similar dynamics play out in other musical genres as well. So it’s hardly a coincidence that the trans people most likely to have compositional training are those, like me, who have the protective insulation of whiteness working in our favor.

But of course, just as most people who write words never write for the theater, most composers never write for the stage. There are quite a few trans composers out there, but very few of them have written singing theater pieces, just as, statistically speaking, very few cis composers have. All of which makes the pool to draw from on the compositional side much shallower and more homogenous than I would like. Accordingly, this article is much less balanced than last week’s; it disproportionately reflects the experiences of white trans people in New York City.[2]

Just as most people who write words never write for the theater, most composers never write for the stage.

Those working in this field have no illusions about these obstacles. “What are the barriers to being a trans music theater writer?” said Sandy Gooen, a transmasculine composer, lyricist, and playwright, “Stigma, time, money, race, education . . . should I keep going? It’s a lot of things, there’s a lot working against you.” AriDy Nox, a femme lyricist and playwright, highlighted the barriers trans people face before even getting to the starting line: “A lot of the barriers are the barriers of being able to live, with your stomach full, with water, with housing — you can’t even get to the art-funding barriers because you have to meet the basic-survival barriers.”

Sandy Gooen (Michael Kushner Photography)

Sandy Gooen (Michael Kushner Photography)

Aspiring trans artists often must navigate this landscape on their own. “[Early on,] I didn’t have access to any kind of trans community, or any sort of apprenticeship with trans artists,” says Éamon Boylan, a transfeminine composer, playwright, and director.

Lacking specifically trans mentors, many turn to academic training programs. These can be a mixed bag. Even when the teachers at such programs are generous and well meaning, their curricula are often not trans-inclusive—class materials will call all baritones and tenors men, and will presume that all characters will be either male or female, for example—and they may stumble repeatedly over pronouns. Individually, these are small things, but cumulatively, they add up. “It gets tedious when you have to explain [these things] for the 100th time,” says Grey Grant, a nonbinary transfeminine composer currently based in Michigan.

Of course, sometimes the pushback is more explicit. Gooen told a story of one professor who insisted he remove a trans character from one of his shows. “I tried to push back, but when it’s about the grade, sometimes you have to be like ‘OK.’” Sarah Schlesinger, the chair of New York University’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, was one of my thesis advisors there. Throughout the thesis process, she deliberately misgendered me and all three nonbinary characters in my thesis project, at one point telling me she was doing so because she thought our pronouns “just don’t make sense.” With training grounds such as these, it’s a wonder there are as many trans writers out there as there are.

The world outside of school is rough enough for writers to begin with. “It’s hard to make a musical already,” says black nonbinary queer trans woman Ianne Fields Stewart. Mika Kauffman, a nonbinary, transmasculine composer, lyricist, director, and producer, agrees: “Being a writer, across the board, is hard. You do a lot of self-producing.” “We’re really into purposeful DIY aesthetics,” Grant says, of their own self-producing work, “But it still costs a lot of money.” And that’s where structural oppression makes things more difficult.

“I know so many trans people who are living in poverty,” Kauffman says. The statistics bear them out. According to the 2015 US Transgender Survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality, 38% of trans people live in households making less than $25,000 a year, compared to 17% in the US population as a whole.[3] That’s not a lot in a city like New York, where the median income ranged from $44,850 to $70,295 (depending on the borough) at that time, and it becomes even less when you factor in the costs of being trans. Simply changing your legal name can cost upwards of $650, and building a new wardrobe from the ground up as your gender presentation (and, potentially, body shape) changes isn’t cheap either.

Neither are medical procedures. “Most of my trans friends are in some kind of medical debt,” says Natalie Elder, a nonbinary lyricist and songwriter. “These absolutely medically and psychologically necessary treatments are not cheap, and they’re not covered by insurance.”[4] Faced with these costs, many trans people turn to crowdfunding, but success is far from guaranteed. In 2018, Kauffman organized a campaign to benefit the much-beloved Drama Bookshop, raising nearly $10,700 in around two months. The campaign they organized for their own medical expenses went much less smoothly.

Natalie Elder

Natalie Elder (Photo by Luke Anthony)

“My surgery was projected to cost $1 more than the amount I raised for the Drama Bookshop,” Kauffman recalled. “It was so easy to raise money for the Bookshop — people came in droves. And then when I did my own fundraiser . . . crickets.”[5]

Despite the uncertain odds of success, these crowdfunding campaigns are so commonplace they’ve become something of a bitter inside joke in the trans community, new ones frequently launching more with a sense of beleaguered inevitability than excitement. As in so many cases, one of the best ways to ally yourself with marginalized communities is to just give us money with no strings attached.[6]

Trans creators’ lack of funds to self-produce makes them less likely than their cis counterparts to be picked up by commissioning and presenting organizations.

Hearing a performer audition, and even casting them in a limited run, is a relatively small commitment for an arts organization to make. Commissioning a writer to create a new work, or even mounting the world premiere of one that already exists, requires considerably more investment (of both time and money), and organizations are, unsurprisingly, hesitant to risk that investment on people without a proven track record. So trans creators’ lack of funds to self-produce their way into a hefty résumé makes them less likely than their cis counterparts to be picked up by commissioning and presenting organizations, which in turn makes their résumés look even scanter in comparison, in a grinding feedback loop that can gradually force people out of the industry.


Unsurprisingly, these barriers compound when other forms of marginalization enter the mix.

“Musical theater in particular is one of the last bastions of white supremacy,” Stewart asserts.[7] Echoing sentiments expressed by performers in last week’s article, Nox said that they’ve held back from applying to trans-specific grant opportunities: “There are not a lot of opportunities in general, and the opportunities that there are demand that you be trans and that’s it. Even when they say they want people of color to apply, they still want you to be mostly trans and not a person of color, which is really limiting.”

AriDy Nox

AriDy Nox (Photo by Kyla Sylvers)

Gooen described a similar dynamic when talking about navigating his gender, sexuality, Judaism, and neurodivergence: “It’s tricky to put all the pieces together, and it’s been hard to find people to mentor me who don’t try to limit the amount of things I am.” Stewart concurred: “There are black people who won’t see me because of my transness, and there are trans people who won’t see me because of my blackness.”

These attempts to limit people to one facet of their personhood fly in the face of the inextricable interconnections that many feel between parts of themselves. “The parts of my identity don’t feel separate,” Nox says. “One of the reasons I identify as a femme is that black womanhood is less binary than white womanhood, especially for black women who are descendants of chattel slaves — this femininity wasn’t meant for us anyway, so why take on the more toxic constraining features of it?”

Accounting for these intersecting identities requires careful, nuanced analysis, and many diversity initiatives miss the mark. Transmasculine people, in particular, are often erased by simplistic gender analyses.

“When I was seen as a woman,” Kauffman says, “I was working more. And then suddenly, when I started going through my transition, I was working less.” They described one show where, once they started transitioning, other members of the creative team began praising their pre-transition self. “They were idealizing this person in a way that I was never actually treated. I wasn’t treated fairly pre-transition, and I’m still not treated fairly now.”

“I do not feel comfortable in [women+] arenas.”

Some gender parity initiatives have started describing themselves as promoting equity for “women+” in an attempt to deepen their analysis, but this is far from sufficient. “I do not feel comfortable in [women+] arenas,” Gooen says. “But I’ve also been in rehearsal spaces where I’m the only person who’s not a cis man, and I’m at a big disadvantage.”

Navigating Whiteness

Given the stark racial disparities between different groups of trans people, how do white creators navigate race in their own artistic practice?

“I have a Stay-In-My-Lane approach,” Grant says. “I mean, I’m not the one getting murdered around here.[8] I’m here to support my non-white trans siblings, friends, and colleagues, but I’m not trying to speak for them.” Elder was similarly circumspect, but raised the issue of financial constraints: “To be perfectly honest, the shows I’ve cast so far would have been way more [racially] diverse if I had more of a budget. The people who can afford to do theater for little to no money are predominantly white.” Elder and Kauffman both said they leave most roles they write racially unspecified, but Kauffman tied their approach to their own experiences of oppression: “I cannot do to another person what cis writers have done to us.”

Grey Grant

Grey Grant (Photo by Grey Grant)

Boylan takes a more self-critical approach. “You always have to be accountable for what you produce. If I’m in a room, whiteness is present, so I will never work on a project that doesn’t include whiteness in some way. That is simply how whiteness operates — it is an insidious, deadly thing. It doesn’t stop there, but acknowledging that is an important initial step before doing any work.”

Making Trans Theater

“I feel like there’s a lot of anger in what I’ve been talking about,” Kauffman said towards the end of their interview, “I want to talk about how grateful I am to know who I am. It’s a wonderful journey, and the more I discover who I am, the more honest I am in my work. And as a writer, honesty is my best friend.”

That feeling of honesty rooted in a deep sense of self was a recurring theme among these writers. “Transness, to me, is a lens through which I see the world,” says Boylan, explaining how their work as a writer grew out of their work as a director at the same time as they began to grow into their trans identity. “So for me, writing has always been about what a trans voice is, as a young trans person coming into myself.”

Éamon Boylan

Éamon Boylan (BLUE Photography)

These writers are unapologetic in their political vision, visions that challenge basic conventions in the field and broaden beyond the confines of trans stories as they usually exist today. “I am really uninterested in education,” Stewart says. “I’m much more interested in liberation. I think of everything I do as being in service to that.” “I don’t know what it means to say ‘This is a man’ anymore,” Boylan explains. “Weirdly, saying ‘This character uses he/him/his’ is much more specific and grounded, because now I know how people refer to this character.” “I can’t wait to write an opera that’s not about transness,” Grant says, “But that still requires characters to be trans” — in other words, a story about the fullness of our lives beyond the bare facts of our genders.

These lives shape the work that trans artists produce. “[Trans characters in my shows] just happen,” Elder says, “Because [trans people] happen in my life.” “My work is all about celebrating and centering black trans women,” Stewart says, “And, most importantly, making sure they survive and thrive.” Grant, meanwhile, ties their work to their home in the Midwest: “A lot of people think the Midwest is very monochromatic, but it’s really not. My Midwest is queer, and radical, and very trans-centric.[9] And so with [Michigan Trees],[10] I’m trying to codify this world I would like to see.”

Grant drew heavily on mythology to write Michigan Trees, just as other writers have used other genres to explore trans themes. “I know this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea,” Grant said, “But I’m obsessed with supernatural moments of transformation in works like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and trans people are kind of magical super-beings anyway, so the mythological approach works well here.” Kauffman, conversely, uses genre to process trauma: “It can be horrifying to exist as trans in a world where transness is taboo. As a horror writer, the genre is so much about confronting your trauma and finding catharsis.” Some of my own work treads similar ground: my musical about murdering conversion therapists is built around the idea of thwarting transphobic power structures by embracing the monstrosity that transphobia ascribes to our bodies — if you’re going to say that we’re monsters no matter what, we might as well draw power from that and destroy you.

Working in various singing theater forms, of course, means that vocal quality is a rich avenue for characterization. How do these artists navigate issues of gender and vocal range?

Vocal Range and Characterization

“I react to voices as embodying a certain way of being,” says Nox, “I think that’s a benefit of being a jazz kid, and hearing all these men using really high voices as a show of power. It’s the Prince Effect: look at how I can control my voice! And that ties in with ideas of authority and seduction that feel more masculine. And then conversely, with singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, they have these deeper voices, but they’re not devoid of femininity! These associations really depend on cultural context. Ultimately, I think of vocal types as reflecting how characters navigate power: soft vocals feel like negotiated power, whereas belted vocals feel like authoritative power.”

“It’s weird that everything low is considered masculine and everything high is considered feminine.”

Elder used a different example: “It’s weird that everything low is considered masculine and everything high is considered feminine. I mean look at Hadestown! You have a romantic lead who’s practically a countertenor.” They’ve played on these associations in their work for dramatic effect; in one of their shows, Dragarella,[11] a trans character drops to the lowest point in her vocal range as she’s preparing to fully present as herself. “That’s her last moment of doubt, her last remnant of ‘Am I sure I’m not a man?’”

All stressed the need for flexibility. “As someone who has now dealt with two puberties,” Gooen said, “I’ve had to go through a million different keys.” Gooen now regularly creates versions of songs in three different keys, but Boylan will tailor things even further: “Every single case is individual; every performer deserves dignity and respect. I change my music very significantly based on who’s singing it, because they find the story that they need to tell. But just because I changed something for a performer doesn’t mean I change the way I sing it. There are multiple versions of my songs in perpetuity.” They see this practice as normal in the musical theater world, citing the myriad versions of old (and new) standards that all coexist without issue.

Allies Weigh In

Since this series is so tied up with discussions of effective allyship, I wanted to include a few cis writers here as well. In deciding who to interview, I took my cues from trans performers: I heard repeatedly that the teams for Opera Kardashian and Good Country were doing the work of responsible allyship, making their works and rehearsal rooms genuinely welcoming to trans people. I asked one member of each team to share their experiences.

Opera Kardashian composer Dana Kaufman never set out to write a trans opera. Long before Caitlyn Jenner came out, Kaufman saw an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians on her roommate’s TV, and instantly gleaned its operatic potential. She had already started working with her librettist, Tom Swift, when Jenner came out. She recalls, “Suddenly there was this issue: Is this even a story I should tell?” She spoke with a variety of trans advocates and performers—social media helped make these connections—who urged her not to abandon the project, albeit with the caveat that Kaufman and Swift take pains to note Jenner’s persona non grata status among large swaths of the trans community.

Dana Kaufman

Dana Kaufman (Photo by Ken Ge)

Charley Parkhurst, the historical figure that inspired the chamber opera Good Country, died in 1879, so there was no breaking news to disrupt the writing process, but there were still complexities to address. Librettist Cecelia Raker had been familiar with Parkhurst since childhood, but the stories of his life uniformly described him as a woman who dressed like a man. She decided to reject that framing. “The way we make history is by telling stories, and the loudest, most consistent narrative is what wins. Right now, there’s one very loud and consistent narrative about this person, and I want to trouble that. The trans version of this story should be part of the mix.”

But she also had doubts about whether she and her composer, Keith Allegretti, were the right people to tell this story. Like Kaufman, she reached out on social media to find trans advocates to talk to. She made sure to seek out multiple perspectives: “It’s really important not to tokenize your feedback. You have to be accountable to a community, not just one person.”

Both Kaufman and Raker described steep learning curves in the early stages. “I would like to say I knew about trans issues and identities,” Kaufman says, “But I really didn’t. I still feel like I’m uninformed, but I do feel much more informed thanks to the infinite patience of my interviewees.” “For me,” Raker explained, “The litmus test is: ‘Do I feel a little anxious and outside my comfort zone?’ If at any point I feel like I got this and I don’t need to run it by anybody else, that’s probably a sign I’m about to fuck up.”

That said, being too anxious can be a problem, too. Early in the development process, Raker was worried about a line in the show she felt might imply that Parkhurst was really a woman. She asked Holden Madagame, who had been cast to play Parkhurst, as well as one of the other trans artists on the project, and they reassured her that the line was fine. But it kept nagging at her, and she kept asking them about it until “we hit a point where they were like ‘Stop asking us this question! We told you our answer!’ Which, in hindsight, is really about trust.”

Cecelia Raker

Cecelia Raker (Photo by Cecelia Raker)

Stewart, who has worked extensively as a consultant, underscores this need to actually accept the things trans people tell you. “So many people dismiss what I say with ‘That’s not the way we do things,’” she said. “Of course it isn’t—that’s why I’m here! The way you do things is not good.”

Advice to cis writers thinking of writing trans stories: a willingness to abandon bad ideas.

When asked for advice to cis writers thinking of writing trans stories, Kaufman and Raker stressed the need for legwork and a willingness to abandon bad ideas. “Make sure you do extraordinarily thorough research,” Kaufman said, “And prioritize the act of listening over the act of composing.” “Be ready to hear that your favorite part won’t work,” Raker advised. “Be light on your feet, and trust in yourself as an artist. You will have more than one idea.”

A Familiar Skepticism

As with the performers profiled last week, trans writers are ambivalent about the role of cis allies here.

Some see potential in collaboration. “Both of my current collaborators have been in the musical theater game professionally for much longer than I have,” Stewart said, “So they have more expertise in this industry. But when it comes to telling trans stories, I am the expert, and my collaborators must be dedicated to prioritizing my word when it comes to how we are telling the stories of trans people.” When collaboration works, Nox explained, it can be phenomenal: “All collaboration is tricky, but the beauty of it is you can make something that couldn’t have come from just you.” Listening and collaborating deeply with trans voices is no guarantee of success, Boylan suggested, “But if you fail after listening to and following the voices of trans people in the room, you’ll be failing in solidarity.”

Others were more skeptical. “Cis writers could, theoretically, someday—with help, obviously!—write trans characters,” Gooen said, “I just think they need to be in time out for a bit based on the recent things they’ve done.” “My immediate reaction,” said Kauffman, “Is, ‘So you, a cis person, want to write a trans character. Why?’”

Mika Kauffman

Mika Kauffman (Photo by Mika Kauffman)

As Gooen indicated, these reactions stem from the stories cis people tell about us. “We’re dying,” Stewart says, talking specifically about black trans women, “And that’s all people want to talk about. People want to see the trauma, but they don’t want to see us as full human beings.” Nox was particularly critical here: “It feels like gatekeepers are saying ‘Please show off your trauma so we can decide if you’re human or not.’ And trauma stories can be useful! But no one’s life is pure trauma—even at my most suicidal, I still had moments of joy. Even at the worst moments, there is some light. When you’re looking at people surviving things you’ve never had to survive, from a privileged perspective, it can be hard to imagine they’re finding joy. And I think that imagining a group of people as incapable of joy is one of the most deeply dehumanizing things you can do.”

The real revolution in trans storytelling will come from trans creators.

The overall consensus was that, while cis writers may have a role to play, the real revolution in trans storytelling will come from trans creators. Or, as Boylan joked: “Trans people will destroy you. Everything you’ve heard is true. We’re tearing down the moral fabric of society, and it feels so good.”


This article has been heavy on trauma. I’m deeply ambivalent about this, because it does feel, in some ways, like trotting out suffering to prove our humanity—no one should ever have to do that. But at the same time, it feels dishonest to skirt this pain, to pretend it isn’t there. These are the stakes you carry if you write about us.

Given the premise of this entire series, it’s probably not surprising that I come down, albeit somewhat tentatively, on the side of encouraging cis people to write trans characters. I still believe, ultimately, that saying cis writers are inherently incapable of writing trans characters implies trans people are insurmountably alien, an Other that exists across an unbridgeable gulf. I happen to think it’s phenomenally difficult to bridge the gulf between any two people, but insofar as such a gulf can be bridged at all, it can be bridged between cis and trans people. My cis friends know who I am. They know my voice, my goals, my reactions to various situations. And those are the things you need to know to make a character real on stage.

Just because it’s possible to bridge a gulf doesn’t mean the gulf isn’t there to begin with.

I also believe that, in the spirit of generosity, it behooves me to offer concrete advice to allies of good will, so that y’all can stop failing so spectacularly at the most basic things. Just because it’s possible to bridge a gulf doesn’t mean the gulf isn’t there to begin with. Next week’s article will take up this task.[12]

Further Reading

This article opens up many avenues for further exploration. Here are some potential next steps down a few of them:


1. Full disclaimer: As with last week’s article, many of those featured here are my friends and collaborators.

2. That said, I of course accept the final responsibility for my decision to write this piece with this specific set of interviewees.

3.  The full survey report includes specific breakdowns for various racial demographics, as well as a wealth of other statistical information. The other statistics related to trans existence quoted in this section come from this survey as well.

4. As always with US health insurance, whether or not gender-affirming medical care is covered varies wildly by health insurance plan and local anti-discrimination regulations.

5. In times of financial hardship, cis writers from well-off families may be able to turn to their parents for support, this isn’t always an option for trans people — 26% of trans people lose some or all of their immediate family ties on coming out, though mercifully that number seems to be shrinking over time.

6. Certainly, hearts starve as well as bodies, and L-rd knows I believe in the importance of live theater, but it is galling, to say the least, to be part of a community roiled by such desperation and then to receive an invitation in the mail to a fundraising gala where individual tickets cost more than my monthly rent. Personally, I have no doubt that if the rich divested themselves of their repugnant wealth—which it is patently morally disgusting for them to keep—we could secure both the basic material needs of all and a vibrant ecosystem of flourishing artistic institutions, but if I am mistaken there, I know where my priorities lie: let the Metropolitan Opera cease performances tomorrow and Broadway go dark forevermore if it means people shall not starve or perish in the streets. Lives matter more than art.

7. Needless to say, opera is hardly any better on this front.

8. There have been 19 reported murders of trans people so far in the US in 2019. The only one who was not a trans woman of color was killed in a mass shooting by his own brother.

9. It’s probably worth noting here that more trans people live in the Midwest than live in the Northeast, and more trans people live in the South than in both regions combined.

10. A chamber opera about a trans woman who turns into a tree.

11. Co-written with composer John Brooks.

12. In the spirit of these past two articles, which have brought together various different perspectives, the final article will be a collaborative endeavor: I will be joined by my dear friend and colleague Aiden K Feltkamp. We look forward to sharing our thoughts.

Knowing the Characters in Your Opera, Literally

As a composer of vocal music—opera, choral, solo—I am always on the prowl for texts for vocal works and for stories which have potential as operas. Very often, as I read a novel or hear some fascinating true tale, my “operatic mind” starts imagining what the story would be like on stage with music, thinking about both the creative aspects (what opportunities are there for cool vocal ensembles in this story?) and practical ones (would this need too huge a cast to make it work as an opera?).

There are such a variety of types of stories that could conceivably be transformed by composers and librettists when creating an opera; many recent operas have been based on well-known movies or novels, or on recent events in history. But sometimes a riveting plot for a dramatic work can be found in the stories of the people in one’s own life—and the close personal connections in such stories can be significant in generating the emotional energy needed to create and present a new opera.

Sometimes a riveting plot for a dramatic work can be found in the stories of the people in one’s own life.

In addition to my life as a composer, I am also a synagogue cantor and have had the great privilege to be a part of the same vibrant community for the last 30 years—Shaarei Tikvah Congregation in Scarsdale, New York. I knew from childhood that I wanted to be a composer and pianist, but it was only after several years of working as a cantor, while in graduate school as a composer, that I came to realize that I was so fortunate to find an occupation that is a profoundly meaningful complement to my composing life. Being a cantor combines my love of music, community, and spirituality. It allows me to sing in public every week, with room for improvisation, and for the deep expression of personal and communal emotions. Judaism has a rich tradition of poetry and storytelling that have inspired me in my composing of liturgical music, concert music, and opera.

My experience as a cantor has also taught me a lot about the power of music in a setting other than performance—the immediacy of reaching out to people with music (both as a soloist and as a leader of communal singing) that certainly is about the music, but is even more about our lived experience as a community. And, through my long connection to my congregation, with its diverse intergenerational population, I have gotten to know many wonderful people and have had the opportunity, both through music and in our personal relationships, to help them celebrate joyous occasions and to find ways to grieve in difficult times.

Two of the most remarkable people I had known since my first days in the community were Jaap and Ina Polak, who, like several other members of our congregation, were survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. Jaap and Ina were from Amsterdam. I gradually became more aware of their story as Jaap spoke to us about the Holocaust, his and Ina’s personal experiences in the concentration camps, and the need to learn from the example of the Holocaust so as to guard against all forms of discrimination and racism, as well as the importance of speaking out against these and other injustices.

In the 1970s, their daughter Margrit found in their attic and began translating the letters that Jaap and Ina had secretly passed to each other while imprisoned in the Westerbork and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. Until this point, Jaap and Ina had not spoken much to their children about their painful concentration camp experiences. After this, they both began the process of relating their experiences, so much so that Jaap became a devoted Holocaust educator, speaking to groups, especially of schoolchildren, all around the U.S. In 2000 they published these letters, in a book entitled Steal a Pencil for Me. Director Michele Ohayan was inspired by the letters and their story to create a documentary film of the same title, which was released in 2007. This excellent documentary can be found on Netflix, but here is the trailer.

In reading the book and seeing the documentary, I realized that the story of my friends Jaap and Ina was more complicated than I had known. Jaap fell in love with Ina at first sight when they met at a friend’s birthday party before their internment—but Jaap, 30 years old, was already married. He and his wife Manja had a difficult marriage and were planning to eventually separate, but were staying together during the war to protect each other’s lives. Meanwhile, Ina, 20 years old, was deeply in love with her boyfriend Rudi—but Rudi had been seized in a raid by the Nazis, and Ina had no idea of his fate.

I am the child of immigrants—my parents both left Europe in the 1930s because of the threat of persecution and war. My mother lived through Kristallnacht in Germany as a teenager, and my father’s mother and many other relatives and friends were killed by the Nazis in Poland. So I had, over the years, given thought to writing an opera set during this time, but had not yet found the right tale to tell. Now, as I became more familiar with the biographies of Jaap and Ina I realized that a perfect operatic idea had been right under my nose for more than 20 years. Ina and Jaap Polak’s story was about intimate romantic complications between good people who were very clearly human, brave in their own way, but not heroic. Their personal narrative was set against the larger historical tragedy of the Holocaust, and so was a way of dramatizing that overwhelming historical period, while inspiring a strong connection to the main characters.

I called up Ina and Jaap to tell them I was interested in writing an opera about them. Their first reaction was great astonishment; then Jaap, who was 97 at the time, told me, “Well, write it quickly!”—he wanted to be sure to have a chance for them to see the opera!

Ina and Jaap

Ina and Jaap

My friend and mentor, the dramaturg Cori Ellison, suggested that playwright Deborah Brevoort would be an excellent collaborator for this project—Deborah and I were both recent alumni of the superb Composer-Librettist Development Project of American Lyric Theater. Deborah had many other projects going on, but once she read the letters, she felt that she must be part of telling this story as well.

Normally in writing an opera, one does not get a chance to have direct contact with its principal characters.

Then began one of the extraordinary parts of creating the opera. Normally in writing an opera, one does not get a chance to have direct contact with its principal characters (especially if they are fictional!). We, however, had the very special privilege of spending many hours speaking with Jaap and Ina, getting much rich detail about their lives, the world in which they grew up in Amsterdam before the war, and their experience of deprivation, loss, love, and hope while in the concentration camps. They spoke very openly and honestly about the emotional complications of their story. It was clear that Ina, 70 years later, still deeply felt the loss of her boyfriend Rudi—who had indeed been killed almost as soon as he was taken prisoner, though Ina did not know this until the end of the war. Jaap always had great affection for his first wife Manja, who also survived the war, and he and Ina kept in touch with her for the rest of Manja’s life. They told us about the details of life in Westerbork, where even in their imprisonment there was still a sham normalcy to life, but from where every Tuesday a group of prisoners were selected to be sent away “to the East” never to be heard of again; and about their life in Bergen-Belsen, where prisoners were made to stand each day for hours of endless and senseless roll calls, and many died of disease and from the effects of the hard labor that they were forced to perform.

Deborah and I worked on a scenario of the story, which Jaap and Ina approved, and then Deborah wrote the libretto. Our plan was to present the complete opera in a semi-staged concert version at our synagogue in the Spring of 2013, to celebrate Jaap’s 100th and Ina’s 90th birthdays. And since I only finally began the composition of the music in early 2012, I did indeed need to “write it quickly.” It was very inspiring, while writing the opera, to have regular contact with the “real” characters of the opera. Ina had, in spite of her 90 years, become a quite steady user of the internet, and I would quite often send her email questions about historical or personal details, which she quickly answered.

In writing the opera, I incorporated several musical ideas related to their Dutch and Jewish heritage, including a key scene in which the prisoners’ longing for freedom, while standing in endless roll calls at the concentration camp, is expressed through a collage of music built up from the chanting of the Torah passage about the Jews being freed from Egypt. An important consideration throughout the composition of the opera, both musically and dramatically, was balancing the romantic (and even comic) aspects of the story with the dramatic and tragic—this was a wonderful compositional challenge.

Writing an opera is a big challenge; getting an opera produced when it has not been commissioned by an opera company is another, and perhaps even bigger challenge.

The workshop semi-staged performances were performed in April 2013 at Shaarei Tikvah and at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan. Cori Ellison again was key in this, acting as a casting director and finding a superb, dedicated cast, and in Ari Pelto, a superb conductor. And once again, the presence of the Polaks at this time transformed the process into something quite extraordinary.

The cast met them early in the rehearsals; Jaap and Ina told them many stories and totally charmed everyone (and Jaap flirted with the singers playing his two wives). At the performances, Jaap and Ina sat in the front row. There was a special electricity in room and emotions were heightened as they watched their story portrayed on stage, and for the performers, as they felt Jaap and Ina watching them. I saw Jaap weeping, not surprisingly, at a scene showing his parents being sent on a train to Auschwitz—a scene that he had often described in his talks.

Ilana Davidson, Ina and Jaap Polak,Gerald Cohen, and Robert Balonek

From left to right: Ilana Davidson (who sang the role of Ina), Ina and Jaap Polak,and Robert Balonek (who sang the role of Jaap) with the composer Gerald Cohen in the back.

Writing an opera is a big challenge; getting an opera produced when it has not been commissioned by an opera company is another, and perhaps even bigger challenge. We created this opera knowing that it would have this very special workshop performance, but with no specific path for it to have its premiere production. Ari Pelto, the conductor in 2013, found the opera compelling, and when he soon after became music director of Opera Colorado he championed our opera, and the company decided to mount the premiere production. (Opera Colorado, under the direction of Maestro Pelto and General Director Greg Carpenter, has lately shown a deep commitment to producing new works. The plan for the premiere gave us the opportunity for major revisions and an amended orchestration. As often is the case, the size of the pit determined the size of the orchestra; we decided on a chamber orchestra of 14 players: 6 winds, 6 strings, piano and percussion.)

I had so wanted Ina and Jaap to see the opera in its fully produced form, but unfortunately, Ina and Jaap were no longer alive. Ina, who was a radiant, young 90-year old at our 2013 performance, developed cancer the next year and died in 2014; Jaap died at age 102 in 2015. I am so grateful that they were able to experience the workshop performances.

The Opera Colorado production in January 2018 was everything that Deborah and I could have dreamed for in a premiere production of the opera, with the brilliant musical and directorial leadership of Ari Pelto and Omer Ben Seadia, the beautiful and haunting sets and projections by Francois-Pierre Couture and Hana Kim, and the evocative costumes of Jessica Jahn. The lead roles (Jaap, Ina, and Manja) were movingly portrayed by Gideon Dabi, Inna Dukach, and Adriana Zabala. Opera Colorado’s decision to produce the opera in the 400-seat Wolf Theatre at the Mizel Arts and Culture Center meant that this staging was a very intimate and immediate experience for the audience, which felt very appropriate for this opera.

A scene from the 2018 Opera Colorado production of Steal a Pencil for Me depicting prisoners at Bergen-Belsen (Photo by Matthew Staver/Opera Colorado)

A scene from the 2018 Opera Colorado production of Steal a Pencil for Me depicting prisoners at Bergen-Belsen (Photo by Matthew Staver/Opera Colorado)

Though Ina and Jaap were not able to be present for the production in Denver, their daughter Margrit, who had first brought the letters to light, was there, and spoke at several panel discussions we had in conjunction with the performances. Her presence gave the audiences there the chance to deepen their connection to her parents’ story.

The generation of survivors is growing old, and fairly soon it will be up to subsequent generations to continue to share and remember.

For those Holocaust survivors who have felt able to share their experiences publicly, the motivation is usually to bear witness to what happened in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, so that their stories would be passed on—among other reasons, in hope that this could not happen again. Deborah and I, and so many others, had the great privilege of knowing Jaap, Ina, and other survivors of the Holocaust, but the generation of survivors is growing old, and fairly soon it will be up to subsequent generations to continue to share and remember. We hope that our opera Steal a Pencil for Me, with its tale of everyday survival in the course of the horror of war and imprisonment, and its special origins from a deep personal connection with its main characters, will help to continue to pass on the lessons of that time, the humanity of those who suffered through it, and the memory of those who lost their lives.

Margrit Polak (center) with composer Gerald Cohen (left) and librettist Deborah Brevoort (right) on opening night of the 2018 Opera Colorado production of Steal a Pencil for Me

Margrit Polak (center) with composer Gerald Cohen (left) and librettist Deborah Brevoort (right) on opening night of the 2018 Opera Colorado production of Steal a Pencil for Me.

Comments from Margrit Polak, daughter of Jaap and Ina Polak:

Being at the first opera workshop with my parents in 2013 was a life highlight for me. My father was fairly deaf then so he followed the libretto with his finger, looking up and down between his reading glasses and the stage. I had the feeling it was a life fulfillment for him. The movie gave him so much, but he was an opera lover and felt that opera was the perfect conduit to express the horrors of the concentration camps because of its permission to be big and bold.

With the generations of survivors slowly diminishing the stories must be kept alive, and my mom and dad’s is unique. These are dark times again. We hope they don’t turn darker, but hope keeps us going, as it did them. And it’s a beautiful reminder that love and optimism and life passion can keep you vital even in the darkest times.

Gerald has worked tirelessly to bring the opera to a wider audience and has refined that work to a point where I just hope and pray that it can have many, many more stagings, reaching a large platform of people. And hopefully, it will bring opera into the lives to some who hadn’t appreciated it before. It is such a beautiful work.

The Queen of Grace and Kindness—Deborah Atherton (1951-2014)

Deborah Atherton seated and holding a piece of brthday cake with a lit candle on top.

Deborah Atherton. Photo by Claudia Carlson, taken at a meeting of her writing group, River Writers of Manhattan.

D SQUARED. That was the idea for a business name Deborah Atherton and I used to joke about when we considered joining forces to help small arts organizations and artists. (We never did launch that business.) We had decided a long time ago that in the workplace, I would use the name “Debbie” and she would use “Deborah.” In fact, I was shocked to hear her family and other friends refer to her as “Debbie” because we had put that agreement into practice some 24 years ago and never strayed from it. Our shared first name confused many, even as recently as a few months ago when someone thought I was the “Development Director Deborah” who was once married to Anthony Davis. We shared a common name, a common profession, and even common jobs, though in succession. But there was nothing common about Deborah. She was one of the most unique and creative people I have ever known, and as her sister-in-law said today, she was the “queen of grace and kindness.” I think everyone who knew her would agree to that coronation. Her death on December 10 sent many of us reeling with pain and loss.
I’ve been thinking about what I could write that would convey the deep and complex human being Deborah was. She helped many, many composers and performers through her work as a consultant and at the American Music Center, Concert Artists Guild, and the American Composers Alliance. She also mentored younger arts administrators. But she was much more than an administrator. She was an artist. And a mother, sister, aunt, cousin, friend. As my friend, she encouraged me throughout many changes in life. I still remember when I was pregnant and finally got the results of the amniocentesis—including the news that I was carrying a boy—which I shared with her. She burst out, “Debbie, boys are wonderful! They love their mothers!” She didn’t mention the obvious—mothers love their sons—but it was there, all the time. She loved her son Tim with all her heart. She spread love and warmth to so many people. She made friends everywhere she went. There are many people who had fabulous experiences with her and their voices should be heard. So I thought the best tribute to her memory would include some of their stories.

Deborah was an extraordinary writer of science fiction and a librettist. Her librettos included Under the Double Moon, a collaboration with composer Anthony Davis, and Mary Shelley, which she created in partnership with the composer Allan Jaffe. Here’s a memory Allan shared with family and friends of Deborah Atherton on a private Facebook page (which I reprint here with his permission):

When Debbie was in the hospital being treated for Hodgkin’s in the 1980s, her first bout with cancer, I went to visit her. At the time, we had started work on our first project, our musical Carmilla, a female vampire tale. When I saw her she was receiving a blood transfusion to counteract the effects of the chemo. As we were talking and the blood was dripping into her, we got the idea of a song “Blood!” where Carmilla and her cohorts sing about the wonders of that delicious red substance, and then and there we started writing our song, which became part of the piece. Resourcefulness, humor, the ability to make lemonade when we are dealt lemons, and a general positive outlook, all these qualities were part of Debbie, and have always been an inspiration for me. During this last bout with cancer Debbie mentioned a piece that she had in mind using the sounds of the hospital; she was convinced that there was a composition in that.
As a writing partner, Debbie had a vision which was so deep and often different. Sometimes she left me in the dust, and I had to scramble to keep up. Mary Shelley was like that. At first, I didn’t quite get it; an opera about the creator of Frankenstein where the monster was a symbol of this woman writer’s struggle with expression and acceptance of creativity, and the conflict it posed with the people in her life. The more she wrote, the more I set her words, the more I entered into her world and saw the depth and meaning. And over the ten years we worked on the piece, that world got richer and deeper for me, inspiring music that I didn’t know was in me. I am so grateful to Debbie for giving me that opportunity and only regret the fact that we couldn’t finish the piece we were presently working on.

Allan Jaffe and Deborah Atherton: “Mary’s Vision” from The Mary Shelley Opera
Mary Shelley sung by Barbara Rearick; Percy Shelley sung by Scott Murphree; Ulla Suokko, flute; Toyin Spellman, oboe; Richard Mannoia, clarinet; Louis Schwadron, French horn; Monica Ellis, bassoon; Conrad Harris, violin; Carol Cook, viola; Robert Burkhart, cello; Mark Helias, contrabass; Timothy Heavner, piano; Conducted by Alan Johnson. Recorded live in concert at The New York Society for Ethical Culture by David Baker and Katsuhiko Naito on May 16, 2002. Copyright © 2002 by Allan Jaffe and Deborah Atherton (BMI). All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Streamed with permission.

Deborah was also deeply interested in understanding creativity, and not just her own. She wrote about the creative process of others. She was on the board of the Interstitial Arts Foundation, an organization that was formed in 2003. She also actively engaged with other writers through a chat room that was formed some 20 years ago, as recalled by her friend Janice Ferri Esser:

There are a group of us online who call ourselves The Sistahs. We hail from all corners of the writing realm: film, television, theater, novels and stories, journalism, poetry, nonfiction, and teaching. We are still together, posting amongst ourselves, twenty years after meeting in the AOL Writers Club Chat Room. We chat about our work, our lives, our families, our joys and successes, our sorrows and misfortunes. We bitch, we laugh, we bemoan the current state of world affairs and offer up solutions. Oftentimes, we’d all be weighing in on this, that, or the other thing, the comments would be flying, but… no Deb. Then a day or so later, she would weigh in, as someone else noted with her characteristic kindness and grace, and always with intelligence and witty good humor. Deb’s comments were always worth the wait. I mentioned this to my husband the other day, and realized what it was that made Deb’s posts so special. She was one of those rare human beings who actually thought before she spoke. She would take in what was being said, think on it, and then frame her response to the conversation at hand in thoughtful, often lyrical terms. She was our Sage. I never heard her speak an ill word about anyone. She did not gossip or trash talk. She did not complain, even when she had a setback. She was humble and sweet and wickedly funny.

Deborah was never at a loss for creative project ideas that reflected her wide range of passions. So, at the time of her death, there was a body of work, most of it collaborative, that remained unfinished. One was an historical mystery novel she was writing for many years with her sister Susan. Another was a new project with Allan Jaffe. And yet another was a book about haunted places, an interest that then merged with her ability to read tarot cards when her former colleague at Concert Artists Guild, Mary Madigan, wanted to learn how to read them as well. Mary recalls:

We’d meet for a drink and dinner, and tarot readings. Deborah suggested meeting at places in old buildings, places she thought had an energetic influence or ghosts. We went to someplace at the Chelsea Market, and to The Algonquin, and then to Landmark Tavern. Apparently there’s a ghost at Landmark from the days of prohibition, and Deborah thought she’d do some research on that. (We did chat up the manager. He told us what he knew: something about a murder upstairs in a bathtub I think.) The first time we met there we discovered Irish music sessions in the back room on Monday nights. That became our routine—to meet at Landmark on a Monday night, sit in the back room, order fish and chips with a glass of wine, catch up on life, listen to Irish music, and do tarot readings.

When Deborah discovered last summer that she had a new medical challenge that would require intensive treatment and long hospital stays, she didn’t hesitate to reach out to family and friends. She let us know what was happening, and told us she would need visits from us. She connected us through a private Facebook page. How did she know that we would find comfort from each other on that page? That even in her death, she would broker new relationships and deeper understanding? I keep asking myself this question: How can I say goodbye to someone who, in spite of the obstacles she encountered throughout a good part of her adult life, wrought meaning and purpose out of every day, even days spent in hospital rooms? I really can’t say goodbye, not yet. So I’ll end this remembrance with a poem written by her friend Claudia Carlson on Wednesday December 3, when her condition worsened:
A Civil Departure
Dear Debbie, how can you be dying
on a night of civil unrest, helicopters and sirens…
You who spoke softly or not at all
a social smile for a reserved heart
observations saved for later, sharpened by wit.
I thought you deserved some sweeter notes
than shouts and municipal budgets gone to riot squads…
Fill the air with arias and songs you were writing.
How can you leave now with your novel half finished—
what will Captain Leonie do without you
to guide “The Water Lizard” to new plot points?
With my heart half emptied
the streets are empty now too
the protesters gone to bed…
Life is so short and yet I found you
let that be the better sorrow
I found you and loved you
and you had to leave too soon.
No wonder the sky rings with grief.

Old photo of Anthony Davis seated and looking toward the floor with Atherton by his side leaning against him.

Deborah Atherton (right) with Anthony Davis at Yale College, 1970. Photo by William Fowkes, reprinted with permission.


Debbie Steinglass

Debbie Steinglass

Debbie Steinglass is the Director of Development for New Music USA and a pianist. She is the former Executive Director of The Jazz Gallery, has counseled and coached many composers and small arts organizations, was a music teacher for many years, and started her career as an arts administrator 28 years ago as the Director of American Music Week at the American Music Center. Her husband and son, both fellow music enthusiasts and creators, are the center of her life.

It Isn’t Over Because”the Fat Lady Wasn’t Singing”

Anna Nicole poster on Subway

The ads for Anna Nicole which appeared all over NYC including on subway trains were one of the few reminders in this town of a million distractions that opera might just be relevant to contemporary America even if it was in fact the work of a British composer and a British librettist.

Last week wasn’t a particularly stellar news week for people concerned about classical music in the United States, which in part overlaps with concern for the health of new music here. The latest tragedy in the ongoing 13-month stalemate between the management and the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra was a painful one-two punch—the nearly simultaneous resignations of conductor Osmo Vänska (a champion of contemporary composers) and composer Aaron Jay Kernis, who ran the orchestra’s Composer Institute, a vital training ground for emerging orchestral composers for a decade. In Massachusetts, rumors have been floating around that the future of Boston University’s Tanglewood Institute might be in jeopardy. (On that matter, stay tuned.) And here in New York City, strained relations between management and labor (this time the stagehands) also led to the cancellation of the opening night gala performance at Carnegie Hall by the visiting Philadelphia Orchestra, which was to have included performances of music by Boston-based composer/pianist Leonardo Genovese and Grammy Award-winning Esperanza Spalding (for which she would have joined them on stage). But perhaps all of this bad news was dwarfed by the filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy by the New York City Opera which effectively dissolved the 70-year-old company.

Although its name was geographically specific, New York City Opera was an important champion for American composers from all over the country. The company produced the world premiere stagings of over 30 American operas, including works that are now acknowledged as 20th-century classics, such as: Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land, William Grant Still’s Trouble Island, Robert Kurka’s The Good Soldier Schweik, Robert Ward’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Crucible, Jack Beeson’s Lizzie Borden, Ned Rorem’s Miss Julie, Thea Musgrave’s The Voice of Ariadne, Dominick Argento’s Miss Havisham’s Fire, and Anthony Davis’s X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X. Over 100 additional operas received an important boost by having excerpts featured in NYCO’s VOX Contemporary Opera Lab. And I must remind all the folks who claim that we don’t need City Opera since we already have the Metropolitan Opera of the more than two dozen year premiere hiatus at the Met between the final performance of Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra in December 1967 and the world premiere of John Corigliano’s The Ghost of Versailles in December 1991, during which time New York City Opera presented 12 world premieres of works by American composers. (Note: While Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach received its American premiere on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in 1976, it was not a Met production.) This season the Met is doing only one new opera, Nico Muhly’s Two Boys.
I bring up all this history about new American opera at the New York City Opera and the comparative lack of it over at the Met because I detected a troubling innuendo about contemporary opera in comments that were made to The New York Times by Tino Gagliardi, the president of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, in the wake of the NYCO’s bankruptcy announcement (to which I’ve added bold to facilitate reading): “[M]anagement’s reckless decisions to move out of the opera’s newly renovated home at Lincoln Center, slash the season schedule and abandon an accessible repertoire have predictably resulted in financial disaster for the company.”

I will not speak to the reduction of the NYCO schedule or the move away from Lincoln Center here (since both of those issues involve economic complexities I don’t feel qualified to address), but it seems to me that, unlike the Met, expanding the operatic repertoire had been central to NYCO’s identity throughout its entire history. So to imply that new music (since “abandoning accessible repertoire” is usually coded language for “presenting new music”) was in any way responsible for the company’s demise seems outrageous. For the record, I tend to only attend performances of contemporary works. (For me, to reference the old cliché about opera, it’s usually preferable if “the fat lady isn’t singing.”) Most of the premiere performances of new works I attended of NYCO productions over the years, including the ones of the most recent seasons (such as Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, which I attended on September 25), were packed to capacity. If anything, NYCO would have better served American audiences by being even more committed to contemporary American operas. The same is true for every other opera company based in the United States, the Metropolitan Opera included.