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New opera links Jewish, German legacies of Holocaust

On the night of Nov. 9, 1938, a well-orchestrated anti-Jewish pogrom erupted throughout Germany and Austria. Synagogues, businesses and homes were attacked, lives were lost. The vicious destruction continued into a second night.

The amount of broken glass afterward led to an infamous name for the incident — Kristallnacht. Through the shards could be detected the seeds of the Holocaust.

This Saturday, 75 years after Kristallnacht began, an opera about the legacy of the Nazi era will be performed in concert form at the Music Center at Strathmore.

"Lost Childhood" has a libretto by Baltimore poet Mary Azrael and music by New Jersey native Janice Hamer. The opera focuses on a Jewish psychiatrist who eluded death as a boy in Poland during the war, and a German colleague born into a family with Nazi sympathies.

"It deals with post-Holocaust revenge, silence and denial, feelings that survivors on both sides, Jews and Germans, felt," Hamer said. "And it raises questions of forgiveness. It's a moral topic that is still relevant."

The opera has been a long time in the making. Azrael and Hamer started on it around 1996. Various workshops were held over the years to develop the piece, most prominently through the organization that commissioned it, American Opera Projects in New York, as well as at the International Vocal Arts Institute in Tel Aviv.

The Strathmore performance, which will feature a seasoned cast and the National Philharmonic conducted by Piotr Gajewski, marks the first time "Lost Childhood" will be heard with its full orchestration.

This will not be an all-out theatrical version — that will have to wait until an opera company decides to produce the work — but director Nick Olcott from the Maryland Opera Studio has devised a semi-staging for the singers.

Like another Holocaust-related opera, "Sophie's Choice" by the late Nicholas Maw, "Lost Childhood" moves back and forth between time periods as painful memories are stirred.

In this case, the settings are Poland during the war years and New York in the early '90s. Judah, known as Julek when as a youth, begins to reveal more and more of his childhood experiences to a fellow psychiatrist named Manfred. In the process, Manfred confronts issues of his own.

Although the names and some incidents are fictionalized, there is an art-imitating-life component to all of this.

The back story starts with Hamer and Azrael.

"I met Jan when she was a teenager," said Azrael, 69, who grew up, and still lives, in Mount Washington and has taught writing at the Johns Hopkins University and other area schools. "I married her cousin, and our friendship has outlived that marriage by 8 years."

The two first collaborated on a musical work — a choral piece with a text based on a Yiddish legend — that was premiered in 1995.

"We were giddy after that and started talking about doing something else," said Hamer, 66, who lives in Philadelphia and teaches at Swarthmore College. "Mary had been reading Holocaust memoirs and suggested doing something on Anne Frank, but to me that felt claustrophobic."

Then things began to take shape in unexpected ways. "I felt we were nudged into this by many coincidences," Hamer said.

She happened to hear a radio interview with Gottfried Wagner, great-grandson of composer Richard Wagner, a notorious anti-Semite whose transcendent music became, long after his death, deeply associated with the Third Reich.

Gottfried Wagner, a writer, director and musicologist, was ostracized by his relatives in the early 1990s after publicly airing the close ties many of Wagner's descendants had to the Nazi regime.

"I heard Gottfried talking about how he spent his life having to answer awkward questions about his family and how he had dedicated his life to a kind of atonement," said Hamer, who called the radio station to get Wagner's address and successfully reached him to express her admiration.

Eventually, the two met at a Princeton University conference on the Holocaust, where they also met Yehuda Nir, a New York-based psychiatrist and author of "The Lost Childhood." That 1989 book chronicled the extraordinary saga of how, in 1941, after his father was killed by the Nazis, Nir and his mother and sister survived the war after assuming the identities of Catholic Poles.

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.' "

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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