NORTH BETHESDA – The National Philharmonic with Maestro Piotr Gajewski, 12 professional soloists and the National Philharmonic Chorale will present the first complete concert performance of the opera “Lost Childhood” by composer Janice Hamer and librettist Mary Azrael on Saturday, November 9 at 8 p.m. ET at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, Maryland.
Premiering on the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”), when a wave of violent anti-Jewish pogroms throughout Germany marked the unofficial start to the Holocaust, “Lost Childhood” is based on the memoir by Holocaust survivor Yehuda Nir. Tickets and more information can be obtained at www.nationalphilharmonic.org or by calling 301-581-5100.
Nir, a New York psychiatrist and Professor Emeritus at Cornell Medical School, was forced into hiding from the Nazis as a child. When his father was arrested in 1941, 11 year-old Nir, his mother and teenaged sister survived by moving from place to place disguised as Polish Catholics. The opera takes place in Poland and Germany during World War II and in Manhattan in 1993.
“The story,” notes Azrael, “is often darkly humorous and ultimately triumphant as the family evades the monstrous power of the Third Reich.”
The central relationship in the opera – between a Jewish survivor and a German descendant of a Nazi sympathizer – is fictitious, but several real-life relationships have determined the production and plot. One was the acquaintance of Hamer’s parents and Gajewski’s father at the retirement community of Ingleside at King Farm in Rockville, where they live. Hamer’s meeting the older Gajewski at Ingleside and discovering that he was a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto encouraged her to contact his son the conductor.
Another real-life connection provided the plot: the fictitious relationship between the two men was inspired by the actual friendship of Dr. Nir and Gottfried Wagner, a great-grandson of the composer Richard Wagner. Dr. Wagner, who served as consultant and dramatic advisor during this opera’s development, is a music historian, multimedia director and writer specializing in the Jewish composers persecuted during the Third Reich, as well as internationally promoting post-Holocaust discourse. Born in Germany after the war, he experienced the second generation’s sense of guilt and search for atonement. He has publicly and critically confronted the antisemitic elements of his great-grandfather’s work.
Hamer, Nir and Wagner met one another at a Holocaust conference. The two men went on to become friends, delivering lectures together about their respective childhoods at worldwide psychiatric conferences. Baltimore poet Mary Azrael, with whom Hamer had produced a prize-winning choral piece and begun exploring subjects for an opera, met Nir and Wagner and proposed a plot for the opera involving a fictionalized version of their relationship as a way to explore the multi-generational effects of war on survivors. What happens to children of war as they grow older? Is forgiveness possible?
In the opera story, the child survivor Judah Gruenfeld’s memory of his “lost childhood” emerges during a meeting at a psychiatric conference in Manhattan 50 years later with Manfred Geyer, a German psychiatrist born after the war into a prominent family of Nazi sympathizers. When Manfred urges Judah to confide in him about his experiences during the war, Judah is evasive. Gradually, however, with Manfred’s persistent questioning, Judah’s memories come rushing back, returning him to that dark time
Over a period of several days, the two men confront each other and wrestle in private with their own painful memories. A powerful bond develops between them as they face the past and their complex, unexpected feelings about each other.
Azrael steeped herself in the life stories and dialogues of Wagner and Nir, and, while the scenes between Judah and Manfred are invented, she incorporated the real men’s words into the libretto. She grew up in a musical family and believes that poetry and music are comparable arts.
“The biggest thrill,” she says, “was when Jan (Hamer) would play and sing all my words—giving them back as music.”
For ironic effect, the work refers frequently to other music, including music of the wartime period. 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 in Warsaw vie with each other in making anti-Semitic jokes, Hamer pairs a polka with the “Horst Wessel Lied,” the unofficial Nazi hymn. A Christian and a Jewish chant are symbolically paired at the end of the opera.
“These are private quotations,” Hamer says. “If recognized, they may enhance one’s listening, but it doesn’t matter if they aren’t.”
“Lost Childhood” was commissioned by American Opera Projects, an opera development company in New York. With their support, scenes from Lost Childhood were performed in piano-vocal workshops at venues in New York, including the Angel Orensantz Foundation Center for the Arts, Symphony Space, the Manhattan School of Music and the Manhattan Jewish Community Center; and in Washington D.C. at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Two orchestrated scenes were presented in the New York City Opera’s VOX program, which introduces excerpts of new operas to the public. The International Vocal Arts Institute in Tel Aviv, directed by the Metropolitan Opera’s distinguished coach Joan Dornemann, presented a workshop performance.
Janice Hamer (composer) has received awards from the Radcliffe Institute, New Jersey and Pennsylvania Arts Councils, New Music USA, American Composers Forum and ASCAP. She is a winner of two national competitions–the Dale Warland New Choral Music Competition and the Miriam Gideon Award from the International Alliance of Women in Music. Her music has been performed by the BBC Singers, Philadelphia’s Orchestra 2001, the Kharkov (Ukraine) Philharmonic and many other groups. She currently teaches at Swarthmore College.
Mary Azrael (librettist) is the author of three books of poems –Victorians, Riddles for a Naked Sailor, and Black Windows. Her poems have been published in Prairie Schooner, Harpers, Chelsea, Poetry Daily and elsewhere. She co-edits Passager Books and Passager, a national literary journal featuring older writers. She first collaborated with Janice Hamer on the libretto of an award-winning choral work, On Paper Bridges. She teaches poetry writing at Johns Hopkins University.
Tenor Michael Hendrick portrays Judah in “Lost Childhood.” Hendrick enjoys success in a diverse range of operatic, symphonic and choral repertoire, rare in today’s world of mostly specialized tenors, performing with leading opera companies and orchestras worldwide. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2007 as Meneas in Strauss’ Die Ägyptische Helena (Fabio Luisi, conductor), followed by a return to the Met as Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos.
Baritone Chris Pedro Trakas has been described by the New York Times as an “outstanding… and elegant baritone with a commanding sound” Trakas is celebrated for the intense, passionate vocalism he brings to a repertoire that ranges from Mozart, Schubert, Rossini, Mahler and Debussy through Britten, Bernstein, Bolcom, Adams and Ellington.
The National Philharmonic performance will be simply staged by Nick Olcott. In addition to Hendrick and Trakas, professional singers will include Rosa Lamoreaux, Danielle Talamantes, Matthew Smith, Neil Ewachiw, Melissa Wimbish, Robert Baker, Linda Maguire and Tyler Young.
Nick Olcott (stage director) is Interim Director of the Maryland Opera Studio (University of Maryland School of Music). Local credits include Wolf Trap Opera, the In Series, and UrbanArias. In January, he will direct Opera Lafayette’s double bill of Così fan tutte and Les femmes vengées, which will play at the Kennedy Center (Washington), Lincoln Center (New York), and the Opéra Royal (Versailles).
Born in Poland, Maestro Gajewski is widely credited with building the Philharmonic to its present status as one of the most respected ensembles in the Washington region; he has been hailed in The Washington Post as an “immensely talented and insightful conductor, whose standards, taste and sensitivity are impeccable.” In addition to his appearances with the National Philharmonic, Gajewski is much in demand as a guest conductor. In recent years, he has appeared with most of the major orchestras in his native Poland, as well as the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in England, the Karlovy Vary Symphony in the Czech Republic, the Okanagan Symphony in Canada and numerous orchestras in the United States.
Since 2005, the National Philharmonic has resided at the state-of-the-art Music Center at Strathmore. With annual performances numbering over 30 and far-reaching educational programming, it is the largest and most active locally based professional ensemble based in Montgomery County. The National Philharmonic continuously strives to create remarkable and significant educational opportunities in the community.
A free pre-concert lecture on November 9 will be offered at 6:45 pm with Associate Conductor Victoria Gau, in the Concert Hall at the Music Center at Strathmore. An exhibit of nine monoprints based on the opera’s theme by Silver Spring painter Miriam Mörsel Nathan will be on show that evening in the corridor of the hall.
To purchase tickets to the Lost Childhood concert opera performance, please visit www.nationalphilharmonic.org or call the Strathmore box office at (301) 581-5100. Ticket prices start at $28, with children free through age 17(attendance for children younger than 12 is not encouraged). Complimentary parking is available.
- Anniversary 75 Years of Kristallnacht Tomorrow October 9 (4international.me)
- Images related to Kristallnacht (kristallnacht75.wordpress.com)
- The American Cartoonists Who Spoke Out Against Kristallnacht (algemeiner.com)