‘Lost Childhood’ views Holo­caust through two lives

Opera at Strath­more in­spired by sur­vivor’s mem­oir

The Washington Times Daily - - Auto - BY EMILY CARY SPE­CIAL TO THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

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.

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