For a Child of the Holocaust, Survival and Endless Hope
American Opera Projects seems to be focusing its energies on operas about the fraught and often fatal intersection of the individual and the oppressive state. A few weeks ago, the company offered scenes from Jorge Martín's "Before Night Falls," a work about the Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas, who was briefly imprisoned by the Castro regime. On Wednesday evening, at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, it presented the first complete reading of "Lost Childhood," a Holocaust memoir, with music by Janice Hamer and a libretto by Mary Azrael.
The opera is based on the book of the same name by Yehuda Nir, who was a young Jewish boy in Poland during World War II, and who survived by pretending to be a Polish Catholic, keeping a step ahead of the Nazis and joining the resistance. He is now a psychiatrist, living in New York.
Instead of simply transferring the memoir to the stage, Ms. Hamer and Ms. Azrael created a frame in which Judah Gruenfeld - Dr. Nir's character - testily discusses his experiences with Manfred Geyer, a German born after the war, who wants to understand what Judah went through. (These sections are based on conversations between Dr. Nir and Gottfried Wagner, the iconoclastic great-grandson of Richard Wagner.) Judah, called Julek as a child, tells his story in a series of flashbacks. But the interaction between Judah and Manfred are nearly as tense as the historical scenes, touching as they do on issues of anger, identity, guilt and the possibility of reconciliation.
Ms. Hamer's score, six years in the works, is accessibly neo-Romantic with flecks of modernist angularity and borrowed Jewish melodies. Her vocal writing is singable and generally appealing. But as operas go, this is quite talky, even apart from a hefty narration, included to describe the action in this unstaged version. The characters seem to speak nearly as much as they sing.
It is difficult to judge the work's power in a rough piano reading, but one question the performance raised was whether opera is the best medium for this story. An opera composer's brief, usually, is to magnify the emotional core of the libretto so that the listener can experience it more deeply. But there is nothing music can do to make these scenes more palpably wrenching than they already are, so the task becomes one of preventing the music from trivializing the text. Mostly Ms. Hamer succeeded, if simply avoiding damage can be counted as success. That may explain why so much of the libretto is spoken.
Steven Osgood conducted a cast that included Michael Hendrick as the adult Judah; Chris Pedro Trakas as Manfred; Tanvir Gopal as young Julek; Leena Chopra as Julek's sister, Lala; Lori Phillips and Michael Zegarski as his parents; and Benjamin Sosland as Ludwig, Lala's boyfriend.