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Holocaust Performer Spends “An Evening” @ BC

The elderly woman was gray-haired with a stooped back and a slow, cautious walk. As a survivor of the concentration camps, Madame F spoke to the Berea College audience about performing music for the Nazis – and for her life. When Madame F left the stage and returned sans wig as Claudia Stevens, not a Holocaust survivor but a piano professor from the College of William and Mary, the impact of her testimony was still strong.

Claudia Stevens performs as "Madame F."

Stevens has been performing the character in her one-act play, “An Evening With Madame F,” since 1989. The character of Madame F is a composite closely based on the actual experiences of Fania Fenelon, who survived the camps by joining a women’s orchestra and performing for the entertainment of the Nazis. Stevens also drew inspiration from many people she has known, including her parents, who were both Holocaust survivors.

Through Madame F’s character, Stevens attempted to share tales of the concentration camps and address the moral dilemmas that people such as Madame F faced by providing music for the entertainment of “murdering butchers.”

“I did it for life,” explained “Madame F.” “One more day of life, one precious, beautiful day.”

Music was a “blessed escape” for some people in the orchestra, Stevens said. But they were often called quitters or traitors by other prisoners. The orchestra tried in its own way to subvert the Nazi regime by playing forbidden music, but in Madame F’s words, “There [was] no punishment, they are too stupid to recognize the tunes. Such is our pitiful revenge.”

Stevens’ one-woman play used acting, singing and piano music to create a dark and thought-provoking atmosphere for her character’s tale of the horrors of Auschwitz. She also played songs that were actually performed and sung by women in the concentration camps.

Although Stevens has been performing the role for 18 years, Stevens said she spent at least as long in preparation for writing the play. Originally conceiving the idea while she was exploring different ways that the piano could be combined with other elements, such as speech, Stevens spent years researching, conducting interviews and gaining valuable life experience. Eventually, she ended up writing the play in only 4 days.

"People have come up to me and added to my knowledge of the subject in all kinds of ways,” said Stevens. She added that it is incredibly important to talk and think about the Holocaust even now, so that people will never forget and never stand by and let something like the Holocaust happen in the future.

One of the other main points Stevens hopes to make with her performance is the importance of having a voice and being heard. Stevens’ character finds that singing is one way to be heard, but one can also testify to their her experiences in other ways.

“I am not saying people ought to perform as if their lives depended on it,” said Stevens, in response to a question about artistic expression, “[but] passion is important."

Stevens received her bachelor’s degree from Vassar and a master’s in musicology from the University of California at Berkeley. She earned her doctoral degree in musical arts from Boston University. Since 1977, she has been a professor of piano at the College of William and Mary. Stevens has also been featured on “Performance Today” on NPR. She has written and performed other one-woman plays in addition to “An Evening With Madame F,” including the most recent “Blue Lias” about the life of historical fossil hunter Mary Anning.

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