JCCSF goes operatic

A brother and sister languish in a German prison, circa 1943, condemned to die for organizing resistance against the Nazi regime. In adjoining cells, mere hours before their execution, the two reflect on their brief but noble lives.

And they sing.

That’s “Die Weisse Rose” (The White Rose), a 1967 opera (later revised) by German composer Udo Zimmerman, set to make its Bay Area premiere in January at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

This marks the first operatic performance at the JCCSF’s Kanbar Hall. It’s a one-night-only affair, presented by the City Concert Opera Orchestra. No costumes, no props, no sets; just musicians, singers and the audience’s imaginations.

Tom Busse, CCOO general manager and conductor, put the show together. “We try to do operas that aren’t done often,” he says. “This one features music modern with a touch of social realism. It’s a very successful piece.”

Busse conducts the 15-member orchestra as well as tenor Dale Tracy and soprano

Carole Schaffer. The singers portray Hans and Sophie Scholl, two real-life siblings who formed Weisse Rose, a German passive resistance movement that distributed anti-Nazi flyers throughout Germany early in the war. The Scholls were arrested, tried and ultimately executed.

The libretto for Zimmerman’s opera draws on the Scholls’ surviving diaries. Says Busse, “She was 21 when executed, and he was 24. Both were extremely precocious, and talked about philosophy and the humanities in depth. In Germany today you see documentaries about them.”

The opera does not have Jewish content per se, and composer Zimmerman is not himself Jewish. But the Scholls represented Righteous Gentiles if ever there were any, and showing the opera at the JCCSF seemed like the right thing to Busse.

“They knew Jews,” says Busse of the Scholls. “They knew others being persecuted; they saw the trains; they saw professors being pulled away. So they urged passive resistance to the Nazi regime. Musically it’s more like a cantata, which is why the piece works without staging.”

The serendipitous partnership between CCOO and the JCCSF came about because Dan Stanley, the orchestra’s board president, happens to play mah jongg at the JCC. “He knew of the new hall,” says Busse. “The next day I was on the phone for an hour with Lenore. We got our ideas together in a week last May.”

He’s referring to Lenore Naxon of the JCC’s Friend Center for the Arts. She, like Busse, is looking forward to inaugurating Kanbar Hall as an opera stage. “This is the right size for our venue,” she says, “with intriguing subject matter. We have a clear multicultural philosophy, which means we don’t necessarily need Jewish content.”

A former employee of the San Francisco Opera and a die-hard opera buff herself, Naxon has a personal stake in bringing opera to the JCC.

“It’s great drama,” she says. “It’s got everything all together: fantasy, betrayal, passion, it’s bigger than life. Marry that with history and a grand theme, either comic or tragic, and you’ve really got something.”

Busse’s orchestra has been around since 2002, having previously staged works by Albinoni, Handel and Holst.

And even though this production does not include painted backdrops, spear carriers and grand marches, Naxon is confident the audience will be no less enraptured. “If you’re transported by the music and the story, you can create the scene in your mind,” she says. “If it all works, it can be as effective to leave more to your imagination.”

“Die Weisse Rose,” an opera in eight scenes by Udo Zimmerman, presented by the City Concert Opera Orchestra, 7:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 10, at the JCC’s Kanbar Hall, 3200 California St., S.F. Tickets: $10-$22. Information: (415) 292-1233.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.