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 - Juliëtte Ronteltap -

On Saturday evening May the 4th, I wriggled my way through a packed city (due to Remembrance Day) to the Stopera. I had never been to the National Opera & Ballet before. Tonight I am there for a performance about Frieda Belinfante – cellist, queer and resistance hero. Upon entering, I am ushered to the auditorium by the director, Sytske van der Ster. ‘VIP treatment,’ she says, before

quickly resuming preparations. The hall is still almost empty apart from the actors/musicians doing a final warm-up. It is announced that the doors will open and not much later the show will start: the very first screening of this musical/opera ever!

Gender fluid

The whole performance actually consists of the arrangement of a grand piano, cello and violin including players (the Chekhov Trio) and the actress and singer Esther Lindenbergh, who mostly performs the role of Frieda, but is sometimes her own counterpart. Yes, male roles too! Through simple wardrobe changes and good acting, you are taken through a multitude of characters and Frieda's life history. For instance, it starts with an impression of her childhood, the image of a chain-smoking mother in a dressing gown. Then the joyous moment when she first got to attend a concert at the Concertgebouw with her father. Musically, this is also very well done: Frieda tentatively joins in with a few notes on her cello and starts playing along more and more convincingly - a metaphor for her introduction to the world of music.

However, the cello is also used as a symbol of the female body. In a comic scene in which the instrument is held in all sorts of compromising ways, Lindenbergh illustrates Frieda Belinfante's orientation. The audience is shown how she meets and starts living with the composer Henriette Bosmans, but eventually – as was expected at the time – marries her male friend Johan Feltkamp. He was a flautist and the three of them formed the Amsterdam Trio. Again, this is followed by a somewhat light-hearted scene in which it is emphasised that Frieda would rather not “play the flute” after all. The marriage eventually ends and Frieda becomes a composer. In 1938, she wins first prize in the conducting competition, which was exceptional for a woman at the time. However, she could not enjoy this for long because of the outbreak of World War II.

War time

Frieda Belinfante was born on the 10th of May and thus celebrated her birthday when German troops invaded the Netherlands. What the performance does incredibly well is take you into the moment only to tear you inexorably out of it. For instance, the audience is urged to cheerfully sing along to ‘Lang zal je Leven’ when this is suddenly interrupted by a bomb blast – just as Frieda's life and that of thousands of Amsterdam’s inhabitants with her. Thus, the musical/opera reflects the actual experience, making the emotions more profound. At least, it had that effect on me. Under German occupation, Frieda, being half-Jewish, decides not to apply for dispensation and her orchestra, with which she performed at the Concertgebouw like her father, is disbanded. In addition, she also joins the resistance, specifically forging identity cards and taking on a new identity herself: Hans Kroon. On this, she notes that despite the circumstances, she never felt so free before. Ironically, however, when she and Group 2000 plot an attack on the Amsterdam Population Register, she herself is not allowed to be part of it as a woman.

Several members of the resistance group were arrested. All their names are mentioned in full in the musical to dwell on their heroism. What this does to Frieda is also well portrayed: she had actually wanted to die with them. She goes into hiding and eventually manages to escape to Switzerland with her friend Toni. An intense scene follows about how they had to wade through the river to cross the border, where you almost feel the cold water rush past you yourself. Although Frieda is allowed to pass after a brief interrogation, things end differently with Toni. ‘I should have said we were

engaged,’ is repeated several times. She ends up in a refugee camp, where she does not speak for some time until she joins a choir. Unfortunately, her return to Amsterdam is very grim. No one is waiting for the survivors. A coarse-mouthed Amsterdam native has snatched the house of a resistance hero and says she is glad he is not coming back. This is what I find very strong about this performance: the resistance is given due attention, but it also reflects on the harsh post-war reality.

Life in America

Disillusioned, Frieda leaves for the United States. Here follows a scene that I found probably the only downside of the whole show. Hysterical American women run around her, speaking in a failed accent. The point is clear, but the scene goes on and on and also falls out of tune musically. However, it then resumes strongly with the meeting of Bobby – Frieda her great love – and her time as conductor of the Orange County Philharmonic Orchestra. This made her the first female conductor of a professional orchestra in the world. Unfortunately, America turns out to be less land of the free than expected and her contract is not renewed because of her orientation. Nevertheless, she did not let herself be discouraged and remained active as a teacher. Eventually, she dies of cancer and Bobby tells how her last days were.

My final verdict is that it was a wonderful performance, where the music was in harmony with the events in Frieda Belinfante's life and even managed to deepen them at some crucial moments. The mix between more comical moments and scenes filled with intense sadness was, in my opinion, perfectly executed. Finally, of course, it is wonderful that this show calls attention to this extraordinary queer pioneer at a time when there is unfortunately still much to fight for.

Frieda Belinfante: een one woman musical is touring several different locations in the Netherlands. Click here for more information.


Image: Annelies Verhelst, Esther Lindbergh as Frieda Belinfante (2024).


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