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An evening with “Madame F”

Published: March 24, 2006
Section: Arts, Etc.


On Sunday afternoon, in Slosberg Recital Hall, a large audience gathered to see a musical drama created by Claudia Stevens titled An Evening with Madame F. Stevens, a visiting scholar at the Womens Studies Research Center (WSRC), is a multitalented performer who herself created the piece. The performance combined dramatic monologue, singing (in English, German, and French), and the playing of instruments.

This one-woman show, which lasted just under an hour, simulates one stop on the publicity tour of a Holocaust survivor who has written a bestselling book. Madame F, as performed by Stevens. She is a survivor who endured Auschwitz by virtue of the fact that she was a member of the orchestra assembled to entertain the Nazi officers. Dressed in a classic gray suit and wig, and speaking in a thick eastern-European accent, Stevens transformation into her character was extremely convincing.

Madame F tells the audience about the emotional difficulty involved with entertaining the Nazi officers in her role as piano player and vocalist in the Auschwitz orchestra. She acknowledges how readers of her book may find this repulsive and not understand how she could comply with obvious murderers who were annihilating her friends and fellow prisoners in this manner. But she explains the strength of the desire to live and how this overcame all other reservations. Madame F asserts that while some other prisoners literally spat upon members of the orchestra in passing, others could not judge the choice of those who decided to try to live any way that they could. One of the most interesting parts of the post-performance question-and-answer period was when an 81-year-old Holocaust survivor in the audience confirmed that this determination to survive could not be judged by the other prisoners in the camp.

The members of the orchestra were not as passive as the audience may have originally imagined, though. Madame F tells of a small rebellion that the orchestra staged, very subtle in execution, in which the orchestra played the works of forbidden Jewish composers such as Felix Mendelssohn. She expresses the tension involved in this small mutiny, and how worried some of the other musicians were especially the leader of the orchestra, Alma Mahler but alas, the Nazi officers were too stupid to even notice. The real rebellion lies in the fact that these prisoners survived to tell their story to future generations.

After the one-act performance, Stevens left the stage as Madame F and returned as herself in order to engage in dialogue with the audienceit was hard to believe that the same woman had so compellingly depicted an elderly Holocaust survivor. Several other scholars from the Womens Studies Research Center were present at the performance, as well as some Brandeis students and members of the outside community. Professor Shulamit Reinharz concluded the question-and-answer session by asking Stevens to share some of her own personal background with the audience.
Stevens responded by stating that she was a little hesitant to share her own story because she did not want An Evening with Madame F to be read as some sort of personal therapy. She proceeded to tell the audience, however, how her parents were Holocaust survivors who changed their identities completely when they moved to a small town in California following liberation. Stevens, who was raised as the Methodist daughter of British parents, only discovered in her sophomore year of college that she was Jewish and that her parents were survivors of Auschwitz. She shared that since uncovering her true background she has had to deal with understanding her own identity. When asked about her religious practice, Stevens responded that she raised her daughter (who was in the audience) as a Jew.

Stevens will continue to tour with this performance at several venues. It has been programmed in nearly 100 US cities including New York, Chicago, Houston and Washington, DC as well as presented by many leading academic institutions across the nation.