Later this month, Jan Agee will leave his home in Davis, board a plane and fly 6,000 miles to Germany just to attend an opera. And she’s not even an opera fan.
But she is a fan of this one. “Grete Minde” is an opera in three acts composed by her grandfather, Eugen Engel, a Berlin businessman and self-taught musician. He finished the opera in the early 1930s and tried for several years to stage it, but with the rise of the Third Reich there was no way for a Jewish composer in Germany to succeed. Or survive.
Engel was murdered in the Sobibor concentration camp in 1943. His handwritten magnum opus, preserved in a single bound volume, has been gathering dust in a trunk for decades. But now, after a series of small miracles, “Grete Minde” will have its world premiere on February 13. in an opera house in Magdeburg, Germany.
Agee, 74, and his brother, Claude Lowen, 84, of San Francisco, will be there to honor their grandfather, soak up the music and absorb the deeper meaning of the occasion. “For me, it’s extremely exciting and rewarding,” Lowen said. “And unexpected.”
Her sister added: “I’m surprised how successful it has been, that all the pieces have fallen into place and that there are people in Germany who, when they heard the story, felt it. been hit and wanted to keep her alive.”
It’s a story that Engel’s grandchildren have been piecing together for years.
As a girl, Jan knew about the chest in the basement. He was brought to San Francisco by his mother, Eva, Eugen’s only child, when she immigrated in 1941. The family belonged to Congregation Emanu-El, and Jan had a happy childhood, but she knew little his grandfather’s German backstory. Eventually, she became curious.
“At one point I opened the trunk and looked inside,” she recalls. “I didn’t know there were a lot of other papers in there. Later, it became one of my missions to find out what we had.
“We don’t know how he got into music,” his brother said of Engel. “He was a businessman in the textile industry. If he had any musical training, we never heard, but he had wide musical contacts in Berlin, so he was active in that world.
In the trunk was a treasure trove of musical scores, photos and correspondence between their late grandfather and notable figures in 20th-century German music, including conductors Bruno Walter and Adolf Busch, and composer Engelbert Humperdinck. It turned out that Engel, born in 1875, was a prolific self-taught composer, having written many lieder (German Art Songs), choral works, chamber pieces and the opera “Grete Minde”, based on a popular 1880 novel by Theodor Fontane.
His musical career, and everything else, fell apart in Hitler’s Germany. Engel’s daughter and grandson fled to Holland in 1935. He eventually joined the family in Amsterdam in 1939, and although his daughter, son-in-law and young grandson left Europe, Engel is stayed behind, trying to get a visa to join them in America. All the while he wrote long love letters to his family, all of which have been preserved.
The Nazi occupiers of Holland eventually arrested and deported him, first to the Westerbork camp and then to Sobibor. In San Francisco, Eva continued, though she rarely spoke of those horrific days in Europe, her brother recalls.
Lowen and Agee did well. He became a successful lawyer in San Francisco, while she worked in the California state government, serving the Department of Consumer Affairs and the Department of Education. She has also worked in the nonprofit world and taught writing at Sacramento Community College.
A few years after their mother’s death in 2006, Agee, then a mother of three adult children, received a call from an archivist at the Jewish Museum in Berlin who had read Eva’s obituary in J. Papers or Artifacts at give to the museum,” she recalls. In 2012, Agee traveled to Berlin to hand over some of her grandfather’s papers to the museum.
The following year, Engel’s music was finally heard. Agee had arranged for some of his songs to be performed by cantorial soloist Rebecca Plack of Congregation Bet Chaverim in Sacramento at a concert held at a private home. Agee remembers seeing many participants in tears.
But it didn’t stop there. This Berlin archivist, Aubrey Pomerance, was also curious about musical scores, which had been neglected for nearly 90 years. “Aubrey wanted the music,” Agee recalled, “but I thought there was no way it would be played.”
She was wrong. The first step to the opera stage was taken when Agee and Lowen organized the installation of a stolpersteine, or memorial stone, near Engel’s former Berlin home. These stones have been placed throughout Europe as permanent reminders of the terrible toll of the Holocaust.
For the 2019 installation, Agee had one overriding wish: “I wanted to see his music performed at the ceremony,” she said. “I realized in the street [in Berlin] was a music school. I contacted them to see if they would accept someone interpreting the songs. They immediately accepted. »
After artists from the Hans Eisler School of Music performed Engel’s songs at the ceremony, it set off a chain reaction in German musical circles. Eventually, Ulrike Schröde, playwright of the Magdeburg Theater, was very interested in examining the opera. With the laborious task of copying and digitizing the handwritten score for orchestra, soloists and choir complete, Schröde and his colleagues knew they had something special. Composed in the post-Wagnerian era, when Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss were dominating, Engel’s music really held up.
“It’s in the style of late romantic opera,” Schröde said, “and we realized it would be a good thing for a German opera house to do. The music is good, the story is good. famous German writer, located in a town near Magdeburg, and the librettist is from Magdeburg. So we said, yes, we can do it.
“Grete Minde” tells the story of a young woman, deprived of her rightful inheritance by her half-brother and the town hall, who takes revenge on her hometown by setting it on fire. The main character dies in the burning steeple. “You can hear the music he liked there, and he put it in there,” Schröde said. “In the Berlin culture of the 1920s, people loved music. [Engel] worked 10 years on it.
To relate the original 19th-century novel to the compositional conditions of the opera in the mid-20th century (and the fate of the composer), the stage set and costumes will more closely resemble the 1940s.
Schröde noted that at the first rehearsal, the singers, musicians, and crew members were amazed by the opera and its Holocaust backstory. “People said, oh, this is amazing and so moving. We want to do this.
For Schröde herself, working on the project was “an honor”.
The world premiere was due to take place last October, but Covid-19 restrictions postponed it to mid-February. Now, omicron or no omicron, the curtain will rise on February 13 on Eugen Engel’s lost masterpiece.
“Opera, of all the classical forms, is the least likely to be performed,” Lowen noted. “You have an unknown composer whose opera is going to be performed, which requires a huge effort. It’s amazing.
Agee’s only regret is that her mother wasn’t there to see the opera performed. But other than that, the revival of his grandfather’s music in the nation that killed him was a deeply moving experience.
“As the Jewish daughter of Holocaust refugees and the granddaughter of a Holocaust victim, I often struggled to understand how the unthinkable happened or to forgive where it happened,” she said. “However, the people of Theater Magdeburg, through their dedication, passion and commitment to this project, showed me that wonderful people are trying to correct the horrors of the past.”