Anne Frank, passport photo, May 1942.

Arthur Fagen to conduct world premiere of “Anne Frank” opera by Shulamit Ran at IU-Bloomington

Mark Gresham | 28 FEB 2023

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. 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.” ~Anne Frank
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The Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University-Bloomington is poised this week to premiere the first-ever mainstage opera based on The Diary of a Young Girl, also known as The Diary of Anne Frank. The new opera, Anne Frank, composed by Shulamit Ran with a libretto by Charles Kondek, opens this Friday, March 3, 2023, at the Musical Arts Center on the Indiana University campus in Bloomington, Indiana. Jacobs School of Music commissioned the opera.

Arthur Fagen will conduct the premiere. Fagen is a professor of music in orchestral conducting and co-chair of the Department of Orchestral Conducting at the Jacobs School, where he has been on faculty since 2008, and has also been music director of The Atlanta Opera since 2010. Fagen’s parents, Rena and Lewis, survived the Holocaust when German industrialist Oskar Schindler added them to his now-famous list of 1,100 Jews he risked his life to save.

EarRelevant’s publisher and principal writer Mark Gresham recently talked with Fagen by phone about Anne Frank in advance of the opera’s upcoming premiere. The Q&A below is drawn from that conversation and is edited for length and clarity.

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Mark Gresham: Thus Friday you will be conducting the world premiere of Anne Frank, a new opera by Shulamit Ran. Tell us a little about it, how the story is told.

Arthur Fagen: This two-act opera juxtaposes scenes directly from the diary of Anne Frank with scenes from concentration camps, and prisoners going off to the concentration camps and being separated from their children. So it presents the story on two different levels, which finally come together in the final scene.

Arthur Fagen, conductor. (courtesy of Jacobs School of Music)

Arthur Fagen, conductor. (courtesy of Jacobs School of Music)

I’ve conducted a number of Shulamit Ran’s symphonic works many, many years ago in Europe. She is a very eclectic composer who draws from a broad range of styles. You cannot pinpoint this opera as being of one style. It goes from one to another.

For example, Anne Frank was a big fan of Ginger Rogers, so there’s a little Hollywood scene that is much more popular in style. There is also music with very aleatoric passages, and all these very dark sounds coming out of the orchestra with different effects in another scene.

MG: Would you say the opera’s structure is rather episodic?

AF: It is very episodic because each scene from the diary actually has its own musical language.

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MG: How do you, as a conductor, navigate that episodicness and shape it into a dramatic and musical arc?

AF: That’s a huge challenge in this work. You have to find the arcs because you’re going between widely disparate types of scenes. You have a Hannukah celebration scene followed by a scene in which Anne is writing about her affection for Peter Van Daan who is also living in the Annex. Then you come to another scene where Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan, who were constantly at each other’s throats, have a fight about a fur coat. There is also a little birthday party scene for Anne in which they also use the children’s chorus along with the main chorus. Again, the musical language is different in each episode.

Shulamit Ran, composer of the opera "Anne Frank." (credit: Valerie Booth)

Shulamit Ran, composer of the opera “Anne Frank.” (credit: Valerie Booth)

I don’t think you can find an overarching line except it is bookmarked by the opera’s opening scene where prisoners are carted off in trains to concentration camps, and also the final scene in which there’s the arrest of Anne Frank and her family who are also sent to concentration camps. But between those two scenes, there are so many different episodes.

MG: It would seem that the prime thread holding the story together is Anne Frank herself.

AF: There’s no question that Anne is the leading figure throughout the opera. She interacts with the other characters in different sections of the libretto, which is based on different parts of the diary. And there are also sections where she’s doing monologues. She’s talking about her writing; she actually talks about her sexual awakening—which only came out very recently in the unexpurgated version of the diary because her father had it cut from the diary when it was first published in 1952. You get a feeling in her monologues about her many moods. Sometimes she’s hopeful; sometimes she feels totally desolate. Over the course of the two years that she was writing the diary, you get the sense of a young girl coming of age.

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MG: So she is the thread, of course, that holds the dramatic arc together in some way, or at least the narrative thread. Is the opera’s episodic nature a matter of pastiche or even a stream-of-consciousness thing?

AF: No, I would say that there is a sense of character development and progress from one “Anne” scene to the next, but those scenes are interspersed between scenes that might offer comic relief, or a happy birthday scene, or a Hannukah scene which in this case is brutally interrupted by concentration camp guards. But you observe her development throughout the opera.

MG: It sounds very complex. How are you managing that as the conductor in performance?

AF: I can tell you quite honestly, I’ve conducted a repertoire of over 100 operas. This is my sixth world premiere opera, and this is, by a wide margin, the most difficult opera I’ve ever had to prepare and conduct. The IU orchestras are good, but this would be tough to pull off with a high-level professional orchestra. It’s a great challenge.

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MG: Given its challenges and idiosyncrasies, have you found that this opera resonates with you? Do you feel it will resonate with the audience?

AF: You know, it’s taken me a long time to get into the piece on a purely musical level. When I first did Stravinbsky’s The Rake’s Progress, years ago in Italy, that piece did not resonate with me when I first began to study it, but by the time I conducted the performances, it resonated with me tremendously.

I’ve had that same process of growing into this Anne Frank opera, and it is resonating with me now. I think the drama itself will definitely resonate with the public, and I think the drama will carry the music along with it, and, ultimately, I think the music itself will resonate with the audience.

MG: Since the music grew on you as you studied and rehearsed it, what motivations drew you to working on this opera in the first place?

AF: My reason for doing it is because, especially nowadays, we live in a world of rising antisemitism. There are plenty of Holocaust deniers out there now trying to minimize what the Holocaust was. Given my family background as a child of Holocaust survivors, something that I’ve been doing that’s been a thread through my whole career is to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive in any way that I could; to inspire and perform works that bring to people’s attention the reality that the Holocaust actually happened. People need to be continually reminded in order to prevent it from happening again.

The world premiere performances of Anne Frank will take place March 3, 4, 9 and 10 at the Indiana University Musical Arts Center, Bloomington, Indiana.


About the author:
Mark Gresham is publisher and principal writer of EarRelevant. he began writing as a music journalist over 30 years ago, but has been a composer of music much longer than that. He was the winner of an ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music journalism in 2003.