Piecing together a broken past
Post-Holocaust opera ‘Lost Childhood’ tells story of pain, healing
by Priscilla Loebenberg, published in the Carroll County Times
On the night of Nov. 9, 1938, in Germany and Austria, Jewish-owned stores were looted, synagogues were burned, homes were ransacked and everywhere windows were smashed. Thus started the first organized pogrom against Jews by the Nazis that led to the genocide of 6 million during World War II.
That night, which changed the world for Jews, was “Kristallnacht” — the Night of Broken Glass, so named for the shards of glass that blanketed the streets in its wake.
It is fitting, said composer Janice Hamer, that the first complete performance of her opera “Lost Childhood” should coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. For 15 years she has been working on the project with her cousin, renowned Baltimore poet Mary Azrael as librettist.
“Every pair of composer and librettist work differently. We are related and had this very easy collaboration that involved a lot of back and forth,” said the Philadephia-based Hamer. “It was really an interactive and very collaborative process.”
The opera went through many stages and was commissioned by American Opera Projects, an opera development company in New York. Scenes from “Lost Childhood” were performed in piano-vocal workshops in New York and in Washington, D.C.; orchestrated scenes were presented in the New York City Opera’s VOX program and a workshop performance was presented to the International Vocal Arts Institute in Tel Aviv, Israel, by the Metropolitan Opera’s Joan Dornemann.
Hamer said the pair was very lucky to have the chance to improve the opera through workshops and feedback from so many distinguished professionals.
“Lost Childhood” tells the story of two psychiatrists meeting at a conference: one a Jewish survivor, Judah, and the other, Manfred, a German born after the Holocaust to a family of Nazi sympathizers. The two men confront each other and their own painful childhoods, depicted in flashbacks, before coming to a place of understanding and acceptance.
“Initially, the younger German wants to get the Jewish survivor to talk,” Azrael said. “He wants to know about him, about what happened in the war.”
Azrael said Judah is like many survivors of childhood trauma who distance themselves from the past. But, Manfred persists because he feels tormented about his family’s role in the Holocaust. Through flashbacks, the past comes to light.
“It’s emotional,” Azrael said. “There’s fear and sometimes a feeling of triumph and terrible grief.”
The creators also incorporate dark humor and irony into the production.
When Manfred speaks of distancing himself from his Nazi father, Hamer incorporates into his aria a fragment from Wagner’s “Lohengrin” — “Nie sollst du mich befragen” (“Never ask me where I’ve come from”). When the staff in the Nazi dentist’s office vie with each other in making anti-Semitic jokes, a polka is paired with the “Horst Wessel Lied,” the unofficial Nazi hymn.
The opera will be performed by the National Philharmonic with Maestro Piotr Gajewski, professional soloists and the National Philharmonic Chorale at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda.
Tenor Michael Hendrick sings the part of Judah with baritone Christopher Trakas as Manfred. Other singers include Rosa Lamoreaux, Danielle Talamantes, Matthew Smith, Neil Ewachiw, Melissa Wimbish, Robert Baker, Linda Maguire and Tyler Young.
Judah’s character is based primarily on the life of Dr. Yehuda Nir, whose memoir is entitled “The Lost Childhood.”
Manfred’s character is a composite, but the relationship between the two men is inspired by Nir’s real-life friendship with Gottfried Wagner, great-grandson of the composer Richard Wagner. Gottfried Wagner’s grandparents were famous Nazi sympathizers.
“He departed from his family,” Hamer said of Wagner. “He took a stand against his grandfather and has spent his life lecturing about the need for dialogue between Germans and Jews.”
Azrael said that the characters in the opera are able to achieve acceptance and begin talking to each other in a way that might lead to healing. It is a place to start; however, it does not reach the level of friendship that is enjoyed by Nir and Wagner.
“They are both on the same page,” Azrael said.
“They are outraged about man’s inhumanity to man and they want people to start talking to each other.”