The Maine Jewish Museum hopes to attract a wider audience, first with an opera by Anne Frank
Nearly two years after a fire forced the Maine Jewish Museum to close, repair and rebuild, the Portland museum aims to build new community connections and new audiences.
And this week, the museum’s staff and board hope to do so through song.
The Maine premiere of Russian composer Grigory Frid’s opera “The Diary of Anne Frank” will take place at the Maine Jewish Museum, with performances Thursday and Saturday. This is part of the museum’s efforts to increase collaboration with other Maine cultural groups and attract a wider audience to the museum beyond members of the Jewish community.
It’s also the first major event to take place at the museum, which is housed in the Etz Chaim Synagogue on Congress Street in the city’s East End, under new executive director Dawn LaRochelle, the first executive director to full time at the museum for about two years. It is also the first production of Opera in the Pines, an alternative opera company based in Maine.
“When cultural organizations collaborate instead of compete, they can have a disproportionate impact. So we would definitely like to do more,” said LaRochelle, who began work in April. “The inaugural production of Hosting Opera in the Pines fits perfectly with what we would like to do.
The opera, written in 1968, tells the story of Anne Frank, the Jewish teenager who, together with her family, hid from the Nazis in a hidden apartment in Amsterdam during World War II. They were captured about two years later, and Anne died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945, aged 16. The diary she kept during her family’s years in hiding was published in book form and became the basis for a film. opera.
The solo opera will be performed in the synagogue’s main worship space by New York soprano Rachel Policar, accompanied by Maine pianist Tina Davis. The 19 scenes that Policar will sing as Frank each come from a chapter in Frank’s diary, starting with when she receives the diary for her birthday.
Although the story is ultimately tragic, Policar said Frank had moments of optimism in his writing, and this is reflected in the songs, which are sung in English. The show lasts approximately 90 minutes without intermission.
“We forget that she was a 15-year-old girl, and she was able to regain hope and optimism despite horrific circumstances,” said Policar, who is Jewish. “She says (in a song) that if she survives, she will dedicate herself to the service of the world. She still believes, after everything she’s been through, that the world is good.
The event will begin with a lecture on Frank’s life and diary by Abraham Peck, founding director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Studies program at the University of Maine at Augusta.
The opera’s debut in Maine came about because Opera in the Pines was looking for a fairly small show for its first production, something that could be done relatively safely in a small space and with a small cast, a said Lauren Yokabaskas, one of Opera in the Pines Founders.
The company was formed last year by Yokabaskas and two other Maine-raised singers – Aaren Rivard and Sable Strout – who had worked across the country but ended up in Maine after the pandemic began.
“It all stopped and we were all challenged to find a way to continue the music,” said Yokabaskas, who grew up in Cape Elizabeth.
Because of the history of opera, Yokabaskas said, Opera in the Pines approached the Maine Jewish Museum to collaborate. She added that the acoustics of the synagogue, aided by a curved ceiling, were also attractive.
“What more perfect place to host an opera about Anne Frank, a Jewish woman whose voice changed the world, than a museum celebrating Jewish immigrants,” LaRochelle said.
The Maine Jewish Museum was founded in 2006 to celebrate and honor Jewish immigrants to Maine. But it was also started as a way to help revitalize the Etz Chaim Synagogue, which at the time had a declining congregation and a building that was well over 130 years old and in dire need of repair.
A separate foundation created for the museum could accept donations from groups banned from making religious donations, said Rabbi Gary Berenson, who served as the museum’s first executive director. Because the museum rented space from the synagogue, its foundation could then use its money to make repairs, Berenson said.
“We only had 20 to 25 families at the time, and we just couldn’t fund repairs through the synagogue alone,” Berenson said. “Creating the museum allowed us to draw attention to Jewish immigration to Maine and Portland, how they made a living, how they worshiped and assimilated.”
Over the years, the museum has expanded to include rotating art exhibits by Jewish-related artists, in a large space off the hallway of the synagogue. A recent exhibit featured book art (works that include the structural properties of a book) about women in the Bible. Other exhibits, such as the Maine Jewish Hall of Fame, photos, and other historical texts are displayed throughout the synagogue building, including the upper balcony. The museum is open from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday through Friday and is free to the public, but donations are welcome.
A fire broke out at the synagogue and museum on May 20, 2020, as crews completed masonry work as part of the building’s decade-long restoration. A new air conditioning unit had been installed the day before. Flames from the fire, which were attributed to faulty wiring behind the Torah Ark in the second-story sanctuary, caused minimal damage, but water damage was significant.
When the synagogue building, including the museum, reopened in February 2021, Berenson estimated it suffered between $1.25 million and $1.5 million in damage. Insurance and a fire restoration fundraising campaign will cover nearly all costs, he said.
Now that the building has been restored, Berenson said board members want to find ways to attract more people there. The museum has hosted concerts by the DaPonte String Quartet and other classical groups, but the hope is that performances, like this upcoming opera, will occur more regularly.
“Partnerships with community programmers are the best way to develop a sustainable program for the museum,” said Katie Getchell, vice chair of the museum’s board of trustees and chair of the programming committee.
Another event that board members and staff hope to bring to the museum’s attention is a touring project called The Violins of Hope. Concerts are held with instruments from a collection of violins, violas and cellos that belonged to Jews before or during the Holocaust and are now owned by luthiers Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein, who work in Israel and Turkey. The violins will be on display at the museum and played by local musicians at a concert in the fall. Details and location for performances are still being worked out, Getchell said.
To realize the museum’s vision of expanding programming and collaborations, board members decided they needed a full-time executive director. The last full-time director, Gary A. Barron, was hired in 2018 and served about two years before leaving, then the museum was closed for almost a year. Late last year, after a search, the board announced it had hired LaRochelle.
LaRochelle, 53, grew up in suburban New York and graduated from Harvard Law School. She ran her own restaurant, taught English and was most recently a program manager at the Center for Women & Enterprise, which has offices throughout New England.
LaRochelle said she’s excited about the museum’s potential and hopes it can become “an established mainstay of the Maine community.”
“I think it can become a place that not only celebrates and honors the Jewish immigrant experience in Maine, but looks at the bigger picture of social justice and underserved communities,” LaRochelle said. “We can do this by building partnerships and working on programs that promote understanding.”