Rediscovered in a basement, his prewar opera heads to Germany

Good News Notes:

Later this month, Jan Agee will leave her Davis home, get on a plane, and fly 6,000 miles to Germany just to attend an opera. And she isn’t even an opera fan.

But she is a fan of this one. “Grete Minde” is a three-act opera composed by her grandfather, Eugen Engel, a Berlin businessman and self-taught musician. He completed the opera in the early 1930s and for several years tried to get it staged, 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, gathered dust inside a trunk for decades. But now, after a series of small miracles, “Grete Minde” will have its world premiere on Feb. 13 at an opera house in Magdeburg, Germany.

Agee, 74, and her brother, Claude Lowen, 84, of San Francisco, will be there to honor their grandfather, take in the music and absorb the profound meaning of the occasion. “To me it’s tremendously exciting and gratifying,” Lowen said. “And unexpected.”

Added his sister, “I’m surprised how successful this has been, that all the pieces fell in place, and that there are people in Germany who, when they heard the story, were touched by it and wanted to keep it alive.”

It’s a story Engel’s grandchildren pieced together over a period of years.

As a girl, Jan knew about the trunk in the basement. It was brought to San Francisco by her mother, Eva, Eugen’s only child, when she immigrated in 1941. The family belonged to Congregation Emanu-El, and Jan enjoyed a happy childhood, but she knew little of her grandfather’s German backstory. Eventually, she became curious.

“At some point, I opened the trunk and looked in,” she 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.”

“We don’t know how he got into music,” her brother said of Engel. “He was a businessman in the textile industry. Whether he had music training, we never heard, but he had wide musical contacts in Berlin, so he was active in that world.”

In the trunk was a trove of musical scores, photos and correspondence between their late grandfather and notable 20th-century German music figures, including conductors Bruno Walter and Adolf Busch, and composer Engelbert Humperdinck. It turned out that Engel, who was born in 1875, was a prolific self-taught composer, having written numerous lieder (German art songs), choral works, chamber pieces and the opera “Grete Minde,” based on a popular 1880 novel by Theodor Fontane.

His music 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 though his daughter, son-in-law and young grandson made it out of Europe, Engel stayed behind, trying to secure a visa to join them in America. All the while, he wrote long, loving letters to his family, all of which were preserved.

The Nazi occupiers of Holland eventually arrested and deported him, first to the Westerbork camp and then to Sobibor. In San Francisco, Eva carried on, though she rarely spoke of those awful days in Europe, her brother recalled.

Lowen and Agee did well. He became a successful San Francisco lawyer, while she worked in California state government, serving in the Department of Consumer Affairs and the Department of Education. She also worked in the nonprofit world and taught writing at community college in Sacramento.

A few years after their mother died in 2006, Agee, by then the mother of three grown children, got a call from an archivist at the Jewish Museum in Berlin who had read Eva’s obituary in J. “He wanted to know if I had any papers or artifacts to donate to the museum,” she recalled. In 2012, Agee traveled to Berlin to deliver some of her grandfather’s papers to the museum.

The next year, Engel’s music was finally heard. Agee had arranged to have some of his lieder performed by cantorial soloist Rebecca Plack of Sacramento’s Congregation Bet Chaverim at a concert held at a private home. Agee remembers seeing many attendees in tears.

But it didn’t stop there. That Berlin archivist, Aubrey Pomerance, had also been curious about the music scores, which had lain neglected for nearly 90 years. “Aubrey wanted the music,” Agee recalled, “but I thought there was no chance it would be performed.”

She was wrong. The first step to the opera stage was taken when Agee and Lowen arranged for the installation of a stolpersteine, or memorial stone, near Engel’s former Berlin home. These stones have been placed all over Europe as permanent reminders of the Shoah’s horrific toll….”

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