World Premiere of the Opera composed by Janice Hamer with Libretto by Mary Azrael
Sermon and Review of the World Premiere at Strathmore on November 9, 2013
November 15, 2013
Saturday evening November 9, 2013, The Strathmore Arts Center and the National Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Piotr Gajewski in an inspiring performance, presented the World premiere of ‘Lost Childhood,’ based on a Holocaust memoir by Dr. Yehuda Nir and the book ‘Twilight of the Wagners’ by Gottfried Wagner. The evening had a capacity audience, which enthusiastically received the new work presented on the 75th commemoration of the Night of Broken Glass - Kristallnacht, the beginning of the Holocaust.
The opera which is close to three hour in length, varies in musical genres and holds together very well, covering much of the range of compositional techniques during the last hundred years as well as chant and folk melody, ending the opera with a minimalist and tonal tour de force sung by the main character. It is expertly written and beautifully orchestrated. While the work is in scene segments, the musical treatment did not lag dramatically except for a few moments in the second act. The work shimmers in its embrace of many genres of music, almost an entire universe, yet is cohesive and has the imprint of an expert composer, while the text is poetic and dramatic giving depth to the story and matching the powerful music in its fullness in a convincing buildup to the conclusion.
Beginning the evening in the lobby of Strathmore we experienced an exhibit of paintings by Miriam Morsel Nathan commissioned by Janice Hamer, which created a group of works built upon outline and shadow blending together and rust like in some melding of figures and fragments. The grey world of these paintings is one of the hidden, a world submerged in the inner mind unable to surface, but remaining in shadow, the terrible past in memory and its effect on us, on survivors, and those who belong to the history of Holocaust, World War II, and its aftermath.
A concert lecture was given by associate conductor of the NSO, Victoria Gaul, who was stunned by the hundreds of people who kept pouring into the balcony area. Maestra Gau projected her voice so that all could hear. From her presentation it was clear to this listener that she was an important part of presenting this work whose score and structure she was prepared to present to an audience looking for insight and some preparation. A memorable moment was when she spoke about the Mark Warshawsky classic and Yiddish folk song, Oyfn Pripetchik. She began to play on the keyboard and immediately was accompanied by an audience who gently filled the concert space with a soft hum of this favorite and touching Yiddish song. This was among the many moving moments of the evening.
Listening to Victoria Gau for a moment I thought we would have a hundred themes to know in order to understand all the elements of this epic score. Not having a chance to see the score, I hope that in the future I can study it.
The story is remarkable in that it juxtaposes two if not three difficult post Holocaust themes: Yehuda Nir’s “I beat Hitler since 80 Million Germans could not kill me”, Nir’s “I cannot forgive them for killing my father,” against the theme of Wagner’s “I feel so much shame” for being from a family who cultivated anti-Semitism and welcomed Hitler so many times that he was called ‘Wolf’ by the children. Neither Nir nor Wager are characters in the work, rather, their respective operatic characters are based on the memoirs of Nir and Wagner.
The opera itself while musically accessible explores both dissonant and atonal music in contrast to melodic, folk based, and operatic references used as thematic material. Surprisingly, the melodic sections were among the most jarring as in one case, used with a scene in a dentist office, singing ‘You can smell a Jew’ with a cabaret like melody and ensemble. My initial response to this was that the scene this was unnecessary, however the librettist felt that the scene was essential to the story.
Another moment which we were waiting for was the incorporation and treatment of Oyfn Pripetchik which to paraphrase - ‘Listen dear children,’ the Rabbi says as he teaches in the song, learn these letters, for in them you will find the tears and anguish of our people. The irony is that this song was written decades before the Holocaust. The original folk song composer did not know that we would find the pain and anguish in the future of the Jews of Europe. Again the simple treatment and honest tonal arrangement was disturbing, almost out of place musically in this riveting and tense story.
As a result, I viewed the opera as a collection of enigmas - the dramatic ones including the survivor, Judah’s (sung by Michael Hendrick) unwillingness to forgive, set side by side with Manfred Geyer (sung by Christopher Trakas) ‘I feel shame.’ Judah says ‘I do not care - Can you give me back my father? I do not wish to forgive.’
These are powerful statements especially coming from two Psychiatrists. What is the inability to forgive? Is it the unwillingness to let the go of the hurt done, since that is what you are left with in the absence of a missing loved one? Is the need for revenge the replacement of the space in us that would have been the father, or God, or is it just part of the survivors’ human dignity to say it is too much to ask for forgiveness?
In these contrasting ideas I continued to see two enigmas that were not reconcilable. There were two people listening to each other, yet, the crimes committed were connected to the Geyer’s shame even though he was not born at that time. How? The Nazis did whatever they could to destroy their own German name and identity. It was not only what they did to the Jews, but also what they did to much of Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The question is not just the shame, for until the waters cover the earth, how will the historic shame be washed away? In my mind this guilt is like the Greek myth of Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill for the rock to roll down and then pushing it uphill again.
The musical contrasts amplify the enigma in the story, with some of the most powerful moments in the opera delivered by the lead tenor, Michael Hendrick, who played Judah, and the music which accompanied him which at that moment was most developed and sustained. Many scenes required episodic presentation, which did not weaken the work, but made us yearn for more musical development of the wonderful creative ideas presented by the composer. Perhaps this is intentional in that it made us uneasy, just as the child, Judah (played by Tyler Young), has to constantly adapt in order to survive. The orchestra performed every type of specialized playing and articulation in an exemplary manner, underpainting the words in the text, coloring the difficult tensions in the complex story.
The players deserve praise for the beauty of line and ease of execution of difficult passages in this excellent orchestration. Rosa Lamoreaux (Julek’s mother) and Danielle Talamantes (Juleks’s sister) sang with great confidence and beauty, as if these roles were made for them. Also memorable was Robert Baker, and a host of other leads who worked as an ensemble as good as one finds in the best opera houses. The performances by the singers were most impressive, especially when considering that this is a new work.
The staging by Nick Olcott, was ingenious. Operatic forces covered the concert stage dividing the orchestra into two orchestras, right and left, with the conductor seated downstage. The chorus, which was outstanding and trained by Stan Engebretson, dressed in black, representing both a unified character, as well as doubling as Gestapo, and other operatic roles. Again, every choral vocal technique was used to dramatic effect. Three center areas provided stage locations for the two central adult characters, with the other areas doubling as Germany and Poland or the dentist’s office and a Polish Catholic apartment. Characters sat on both sides down stage with their backs to the audience. The entire stage operated like some giant clock with orchestra, chorus, soloists, actors and conductor, a remarkable feat smoothly performed for a concert production of the opera, which I think, could be repeated as it stands. The center back was used to project the libretto (Surtitle operator - James Siranovich), which made it possible to follow every word without any snafu.
Janice Hamer and Mary Azrael have given us the best of their creative genius in this ‘life work’ that took fifteen years of creating, writing, composing, orchestrating, developing, workshopping, and fundraising. In addition they garnered support from a world of supportive fine artists and organizations. This is a work, which has ‘legs’, and which I hope will be performed many times, especially in Europe and Israel. The vocal music, which is singable, nuanced, and sensitive to the singers’ strengths and vocal fachs, and which as a result, enabled the singers to be at their best. They were wonderful in the same way that singers soar in the operas of Benjamin Britten, especially the operatic classic Peter Grimes.
In a survivors hymn (not in this work), The Song of the Partisan, we hear the lyric ‘We are here’ and in another way Judah says this in the form of ‘I beat Hitler and 80 million Germans who tried to kill me.’ His very presence is a victory against the goals of the Nazis. Yet, the Nazis nearly succeeded. How was that possible? The question asked in the opera based on the book ‘Sophie’s Choice’ is important here. The question is ‘Where was God during the Holocaust?’ This is answered with another question: ‘Where was man?’
The puzzles in this human story, our need to reconcile placed against our inability to reconcile will be the subject for philosophers and psychologists for generations to come. Yet, the Holocaust represents a chasm so deep as to be the lowest point in human history - killing someone every thirty seconds for six years (400,000 Hungarian Jews in two months) (400,000 Polish Jews evacuated from Warsaw in 30 days), at one point, 43,000 killed in a day.
Can this opera help us? Yes, it can provide some catharsis for the depth of the injury, as well as the recognition of the shame felt by subsequent German generations. If history is our guide, the future does not look promising regarding the building of a Western Civilization that is committed to moral action in the face of cults and demagogues. The daily news is filled with stories of looted art, growing xenophobia in Europe, Anti Semitism and anti-Israel movements in many places in Europe and the Arab world, openly denying the Holocaust. In the United States in New York State Jewish students and families in Newburgh for being victimized in school, on the bus, in sports, with weak or no response from school officials, filled a lawsuit. Man can make a difference only if we confront the instinct to do evil and subdue it.
We are grateful to Janice Hamer and Mary Azrael, and all those involved for this provocative work which while it does not resolve these human enigmas, nevertheless it allows us to experience and have some comprehension of the different types of struggle and pain involved in this whirlwind of evil, the Holocaust, and its aftermath. The lyrics of the song ‘Oyfn Pripetchik’ end with speaking about the Hebrew letters Alef-Bet: ‘When you are weary, you will derive strength from these letters.’ In a similar way, this opera, Lost Childhood, comforts us and gives us strength to wrestle with the difficult questions in the post-Holocaust world.