Two psychiatrists attending a conference in Manhattan in 1993 meet for a drink in a hotel bar and begin talking, forming the basis for an opera called “Lost Childhood.”
Judah is a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust in Poland, and the younger Manfred, born after the war, is the German son of Nazi sympathizers.
“This is probably the first opera to address post-Holocaust issues,” said Janice Hamer of Philadelphia, who composed the work with poet and librettist Mary Azrael of Baltimore.
The opera is based on a memoir called “The Lost Childhood” by New York psychiatrist Yehuda Nir and talks with Gottfried Wagner, great-grandson of the composer Richard Wagner, who served as a consultant.
The first fully orchestrated version of the two-act opera will be performed Saturday at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda.
Performing will be 12 professional soloists along with the National Philharmonic and the National Philharmonic Chorale conducted by Maestro Piotr Gajewski of Rockville.
Associate conductor Victoria Gau will give a pre-concert lecture that Hamer, Azrael and Wagner are expected to attend.
A music historian, Wagner was disowned by his family for criticizing his great-grandfather’s anti-Semitic views and for criticizing his family’s later support of Hitler.
He has devoted much of his adult life to facilitating talks between Holocaust survivors and their families and post-war Germans like himself.
On view in the Strathmore lobby will be monoprints by Silver Spring artist Miriam Morsel Nathan, whose parents survived the Holocaust but who lost other members of her family.
Nathan said she used photographs of her relatives to evoke the sense of absence, memory and loss that Hamer was looking for in the prints to complement the performance.
“They were made with the idea that they would accompany the opera,” Nathan said.
“Lost Childhood” takes place on the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, an orchestrated attack on Jews and Jewish property on Nov. 9-10, 1938, in Germany and Austria. The night of violence killed at least 91 Jews and led to the arrest and jailing of 30,000 others as Hitler moved closer to World War II and his “final solution.”
Family in hiding
As the discussion between the two psychiatrists unfolds in “Lost Childhood,” Manfred (baritone Chris Pedro) asks Judah (tenor Michael Hendrick) to talk about his experience in the war.
Judah, who has not spoken about it for 50 years, is at first reluctant to reveal his childhood, especially to a German.
But Manfred’s question unlocks his memories, and through a series of flashbacks on stage, he reveals that in 1941 when he was 11 and called Julek (Tyler Young), his father was arrested and murdered.
Knowing that Julek and his mother (Rosa Lamoreaux) and older sister Lala (Danielle Talamantes) must hide or die, Lala’s boyfriend Ludwig (Matthew Loyal Smith) provides the family with forged papers and new identities as Polish Catholics.
The granddaughter of rabbis, the mother is indignant, angry and also worried about assuming a Polish name and Catholic identity.
“A stranger’s name, a stolen name; how can I carry it off?” she sings.
But she does, going to work as a maid for a German family, where she is able to secretly see her children. Lala finds work in a Nazi dentist’s office and brings Julek to live with her and to work as an assistant in the office.
Julek is nearly discovered several times, and in one scene, is found out to be Jewish, but he manages to bargain his way out of it, surviving with his family in Warsaw and later in a German work camp.
During the conversation on stage, an angry Judah, enraged and grief-stricken, says he cannot ever forgive what happened and scares off Manfred, who feels ashamed, guilty and unable to face the legacy of his forefathers.
“Born into silence and blinding denials,” Manfred sings about seeing a documentary as a boy showing “mountains of dead and dying people” with Richard Wagner’s music playing in the background.
“You must understand, I wasn’t born, I wasn’t there,” sings Manfred. “I’m not the enemy. I’m on your side. I have my nightmares, too.”
Duets and arias
Hamer and Azrael had collaborated on a choral work before, but neither had ever worked on an opera. Composing music to a libretto was definitely something new.
“We had to learn a basic fact — it’s not a play, it has to be much shorter,” said Hamer, noting that singing a syllable in an opera takes a lot longer than speaking it.
Hamer said most of the music is “very lyrical, very accessible,” touched with some modernist moments.
There is a duet between Julek’s parents and two love duets between Lala and Ludwig, she said.
She also includes subtle musical references in the score, including fragments of Gregorian chant, Maimonides’ “Thirteen Principles” of the Jewish faith, an opera composed in the Terezin concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic, Richard Wagner’s “Lohengrin” and a song that Eli Wiesel sang as a boy.
Hamer and Azrael said one atypical scene in the opera had upset audiences during workshops. It takes place in a Nazi dentist’s office where Lala works. The SS dentist, Adolf Schmoll (Robert Baker) and his staff are joking and laughing about how they can smell a Jew. Schmool also deliberately terrifies the patient in the chair by pretending to suspect he’s Jewish.
Hamer said she wove into the score a simultaneous mix of vocal cabaret-like singing, with the strings playing a polka and the brass section evoking the Nazi anthem, “Horst Wessel Lied.”
Some said the scene was offensive, but librettist Azrael said she argued to keep it in.
“This is one of the ways people get caught up in horrible behavior,” she said. “It made me nervous, but I felt I had to dig in, for better or worse.”
There is also a scene in the dentist office in which an older dental assistant (Andrew McLaughlin) starts humming a Yiddish tune, “Oyfn Pripetchik,” which was widely sung in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.
It is about a rabbi teaching young children the alphabet.
Julek tentatively hums in response, and the two briefly and joyfully recognize each other as Jewish, but the moment quickly passes for fear of being discovered.
Azrael said her biggest challenge was finding a way to channel all the information she had gathered from Nir’s memoir and talks with Wagner into the characters of Judah and Manfred, and the characters in Judah’s flashbacks.
“I had to imagine their conversations ... and how to interweave the scenes from the memoir,” said Azrael.
“There is no forgiveness, but they begin to understand each other,” she about Judah and Manfred.
“To feel the other as a human being, that was a start.”