Hamer recognized in Nir's book a possible scenario for an opera ("It's not laden with a lot of emotion or self-pity") and suggested it to Azrael.
"I jotted down pages I felt would make wonderful scenes," the poet said. "I could hear music and see the stage."
But, as things turned out, the opera would use more than Nir's book for inspiration. While Hamer and Azrael were beginning to dig into the project, Nir and Wagner became friends and began lecturing together frequently, offering the perspectives of a Jewish Holocaust survivor and a German born right after the war.
Hamer and Azrael attended a Nir/Wagner appearance in Philadelphia and that led to a new angle for the opera.
"Mary was listening to the two men and decided that having two characters like them would make a very interesting framing device," Hamer said. "As we wrote the opera, those two characters became more and more important."
(The title page of the libretto says it is "based on 'The Lost Childhood,' a memoir by Yehuda Nir, and conversations with Gottfried Wagner.")
Stepping into the world of opera was a new experience for composer and librettist alike.
"I went to a lot of operas as a kid, and I never get tired of 'Carmen,' but I'm not a big opera fan," Azrael said. "I studied librettos and watched a lot of videos to prepare myself for this."
Hamer, whose background includes studies with such eminent composers as Peter Maxwell Davies, David Del Tredici and Thea Musgrave, set about fashioning a score that would match the issues and emotions in "Lost Childhood."
"The time periods referred to in the opera governed the orchestration to some extent," Hamer said. "And there are references to other pieces. For the barter scene [when Julek tries to get food for the family], I used a weird folk song that Yehuda gave me; it was written before the war in his hometown. I was interested to see if a melody transplanted from its normal environment could bloom in a horrific context."
Hamer also inserted into her score "a subtle quotation" from Viktor Ullmann's opera "Der Kaiser von Atlantis," which was written in the Terezin concentration camp shortly before the composer was sent to his death at Auschwitz.
Richard Wagner gets a reference in "Lost Childhood," too. In the scene where Manfred tries to avoid answering questions about his family, Hamer quotes the passage when the title character in Wagner's "Lohengrin" does the same thing.
One of the most vivid scenes in "Lost Childhood" takes place in a Nazi dentist's office where young Julek finds work. The dentist and his staff let loose hideous anti-Semitic remarks ("You can't have an opera about a subject like this and not go there," Azrael said).
For the orchestral underpinning in that scene, Hamer wrote a polka in B-flat.
"There was an amazing musical coincidence later," Hamer said. "Gottfried suggested that I look at the unofficial Nazi hymn, 'Horst Wessel Lied.' When I saw the sheet music for it, I noticed it was in B-flat, and there was a perfect harmonic and rhythmic syncing to my polka."
Creating "Lost Childhood" meant that Hamer and Azrael had to find a way to be in sync for more than 15 years as the work took shape.
"We didn't see eye-to-eye all the time," the librettist said, "but we're still friends. It was a really interesting challenge. I would do another opera."
Given how many years it took to complete this one, Hamer has a title for the next.
"I joke," she said, "that we will do a sequel called 'Lost Adulthood.' "
If you go
"Lost Childhood" will be performed at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets are $28 to $84. Call 301-581-5100, or go to strathmore.org.