Eugen Engel, a Berlin businessman and self-taught musician, completed the opera in the early 1930s and tried to get it staged but there was no way for a Jewish composer in Germany to succeed. Engel was murdered in the Sobibor concentration camp in 1943. His work gathered dust inside a trunk for decades.
Jan Agee, Engel’s granddaughter said that her family kept the trunk, but did not look inside until the Jewish Museum Berlin reached out for paperwork for its archives.
“At some point, I opened the trunk and looked in,” Agee recalled. “I didn’t know there were a lot of other papers in there. It later became a mission of mine to figure out what we had.”
It’s a story Engel’s grandchildren pieced together over a period of years.
Grete Minde is a late-romantic opera of 1920s jazz melodies and large orchestral sounds.
Anna Skryleva, a Russian conductor who became the general music director of Theater Magdeburg in 2019, said she played a piano arrangement of the opera at home and was immediately captured.
The musicians – a large ensemble including an organ, two harps, strings and brass, a female choir and solo singers – were supportive and excited to take on this project, Skryleva said. “We are all at great pains to do Engel justice, seeing him as representative of the many composers we never got to know.”
Skryleva and Ulrike Schröder, Theater Magdeburg’s chief dramatic adviser, oversaw the transcription of text by experts of more than 40 individual voice and instrument parts during the worldwide pandemic shutdown.
“We believe he spent almost 20 years composing the opera, working on it in his spare time,” said Schröder.
The entire production cost more than $125,000 to stage.
The source material for the opera is Grete Minde, by the writer Theodor Fontane. The story is based on the true 16th-century story of a young woman who is deprived of her rightful inheritance by officials in her home town and takes her revenge by setting fire to it and burning to death herself and her child.
Parallels can be drawn between Grete Minde and the decimation of the Jews.
“It has everything you may wish from an opera, involving the entire ensemble, a heart-stopping storyline touching on the dream of a better, fairer life versus the dogma and bigotry of bourgeois society, accompanied with gorgeous sounds and catchy rhythms,” wrote Die Zeit’s music critic Hannah Schmidt.
The opera will continue showing in Magdeburg in February and March. The family hopes it will be performed on other stages around the world, with several venues already interested.