The creative team of composer Janice Hamer and Baltimore poet Mary Azrael have been friends since they were teenagers. After collaborating on their award-winning choral work “On Paper Bridges,” they set their sights on an opera. Fifteen years later, they look forward to the first complete concert performance of “Lost Childhood,” based on the memoir of Holocaust survivor Yehuda Nir.
In commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, “Lost Childhood” will be presented at the Music Center at Strathmore on Saturday by the National Philharmonic, the National Philharmonic Chorale and 12 professional soloists. Piotr Gajewski, the orchestra’s founder and artistic director, conducts. The commission by American Opera Projects was developed at several workshops in New York City and at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
“Lost Childhood’s” powerful libretto was inspired by the friendship between Dr. Nir, a New York psychiatrist and professor emeritus at Cornell Medical School, and Gottfried Wagner, a great-grandson of composer Richard Wagner, which developed after they met at a Holocaust conference. They are portrayed in the opera by tenor Michael Hendrick as Judah and baritone Chris Pedro Trakas as Manfred.
The opening scene of the opera parallels the actual meeting of Dr. Nir and Mr. Wagner. Ms. Azrael places it in Manhattan, where two aging men attending a psychiatric meeting learn that they lived through the Holocaust in contrasting situations. Judah is a Polish Jewish boy who, like Dr. Nir, survived by passing as a Catholic; Manfred grew up in a German home of Nazi sympathizers.
The story she weaves begins with Judah’s happy childhood in a thriving bourgeois family living in Lvov, Poland (now Ukraine). Then comes November 1938 and Kristallnacht (“The Night of Broken Glass”), the infamous wave of violent Nazi attacks on Jews on the night of Nov. 8-9, 1938. Judah’s father, a successful businessman, refuses to believe that event and the subsequent invasion of Poland by Germany will change their lives until he is arrested in 1941 and disappears forever. Desperate to survive, Judah, his mother and sister move from one place to another after reluctantly adopting false identities as Catholics to escape death at the hands of the Nazis.
“I had been re-reading the story of Anne Frank, a favorite since childhood, and discovered that many other children like Anne had hidden to escape the Nazis,” Ms. Hamer told The Washington Times on Wednesday. “So when I met Dr. Nir and learned that he was one of those children, I knew his story would make a great opera. Mary and I discussed various ways to approach it and decided to base it on the interaction between two men like Yehuda and Gottfried who meet and talk about their pasts.
“Dr. Wagner has been very much on board from the beginning. He became our consultant and dramatic adviser and was a wonderful help because he is a music historian and a writer knowledgeable about the Jewish composers who suffered during the Third Reich. Even though he was born in Germany after the war, he and many others of his generation felt, and still feel, guilty about the past.
“He directed one scene in a workshop that showed us how to shape Manfred as a man with post-war German sensibilities filled with shame and how to approach the issue of forgiveness.”
Ms. Hamer, who teaches music theory at Swarthmore College, emphasizes that the musical style is very much her own. However, she subtly quotes motifs from the period. In an early scene, Judah’s teenage sister is dancing to a tango. While researching three tangos Dr. Nir remembered as likely candidates, she found a recording of one with two Wagner melodies in the bass line. It was the ideal choice to incorporate. Her score contains snatches of an aria from Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” a polka paired with the unofficial Nazi hymn, “Horst Wessel Lied,” and Christian and Jewish chants.
Once their opera had gone through numerous workshops and was ready to be performed, Ms. Hamer began searching for orchestras and conductors who might be interested. Fate stepped in once again. Her parents live in Ingleside at King Farm, a retirement community in Rockville, Md. where Mr. Gajewski’s father, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, also lives. Upon learning that his son conducts the National Philharmonic, she knew she had found the perfect organization to debut the opera.
Other noted vocalists in the cast are sopranos Rosa Lamoreaux and Danielle Talamantes, tenor Robert Baker, baritone Neil Ewachiw and mezzo soprano Linda Maguire. The staging is by Nick Olcott, interim director of the Maryland Opera Studio, University of Maryland.
Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, Md.