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Lost Fort Ontario opera to be performed again more than 75 years later

Photo from the National Museum of the Jewish People, in Israel.jpg
Public domain image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Rediscovered operetta -- The operetta “The Golden Cage” -- to be staged at SUNY Oswego on Nov. 12 and 13 by the Oswego Opera Theatre -- was written by and tells the story of refugees fleeing World War II and arriving at a one-of-a-kind shelter in the Port City.

Oswego Opera Theater is performing “The Golden Cage” this weekend. The opera was performed in 1945 and presumed lost before a chance encounter led to its rediscovery more than 75 years later.

In a rehearsal for “The Golden Cage” the children's choir sings about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's invitation for 982 refugees to come to the United States during World War II.

Those refugees, fleeing the Holocaust, arrived at Fort Ontario in Oswego in 1944. The empty army base was the only refugee center in the country during the war.

Judy Coe-Rapaport, vice president of the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum in Oswego, said the refugees came as invited guests of President Roosevelt because of immigration quotas.

“There was a lot of anti-Semitism in the United States," Coe-Rapaport said. "So it couldn't be all Jewish, 89% of the refugees were Jewish, but there was also Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestants in the mix.”

Coe-Rapaport said the refugees were not allowed to leave the shelter during their first 30 days, so Oswego residents brought goods to them and teachers began teaching English. Life looked similar to Oswego residents. Children at the shelter joined Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, they attended school and some refugees composed music. But a barbed wire fence encapsulated the fort – separating them from the town.

“Even though here they were well treated, they still felt like they were behind the fence,” LaManna said. “One of the refugees was a musician, and he wrote an operetta named the Golden Cage because they felt that they lived in a golden cage. It was a wonderful place, but it was still a cage.”

Charles Abeles composed the music for “The Golden Cage.” The opera was performed only twice, once on New Year’s Eve in 1945 and a second, abbreviated performance, in January 1946. The ending was changed after President Harry Truman allowed the refugees to stay in the country – but only after they had crossed a bridge to Canada to receive their green cards could they become official residents.

“We found out that he had stopped in New York City when he left with his music that he had composed at the fort, hoping to get it published,” Oswego Opera President Marilynn Smiley said. “But unfortunately the publisher stole his music, and he never got it back.”

That’s Marilynn Smiley, president of Oswego Opera Theater. Smiley said the work was assumed to have been lost, until she received a copy of the overture from the National Holocaust Museum. Smiley later mentioned it to Abeles’ nephew at the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum when he was visiting the area.

“About two years later I got a manila envelope in the mail,” Smiley said. “It was a score for ‘The Golden Cage.' I couldn't believe it.”

The Golden Cage original manuscript.jpg
Juan La Manna
/
Oswego Opera
Title page from "The Golden Cage" originally performed in 1945.

But the work wasn’t complete – missing lyrics and orchestrations. LaManna began to tediously puzzle it back together.

“I compared lyrics with notes that had no lyrics and tried to find what fit,” LaManna said. “For the parts that were missing music but had lyrics, I used themes that he had used before in the operetta and that seemed to fit those words.”

Golden Cage page
Juan LaManna
/
Oswego Opera Theater
A page of "The Golden Cage"

“I have probably put in 1000 hours in it,” LaManna continued. “It has been a labor of love.”

LaManna said he believes the message of opera is to sensitize the public to the horrors of the Holocaust.

“How so many millions were killed and just few of them were able to escape and how the plight of refugees existed then, but it still exists today,” LaManna said. “And anti-Semitism is on the rise as well so. I hope that this opera raises the consciousness of anti-Semitism so that we will have no more holocausts.”

Benjamin Spierman, the other artistic director of Oswego Opera Theater, said the performance is adding in other elements. The opera weaves together recordings of refugee writings along with sections of presidential speeches from Roosevelt and Truman. Archival photos are projected to form sets for each scene.

“What we’re doing is really a development upon the original material,” Spierman said. “We’re not trying to do a reenactment. We’re doing a new thing. That’s what's really exciting about all of this.”

Oswego Opera Theater’s performance of “The Golden Cage” will also be available to watch online beginning in December at https://oswegogoldencage.bpt.me/

Ava Pukatch joined the WRVO news team in September 2022. She previously reported for WCHL in Chapel Hill, NC and earned a degree in Journalism and Media from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At UNC, Ava was a Stembler Scholar and a reporter and producer for the award-winning UNC Hussman broadcast Carolina Connection. In her free time, Ava enjoys theatre, coffee and cheering on Tar Heel sports. Find her on Twitter @apukatch.