Composer Janice Hamer Explores Themes of Guilt, Reconciliation in New Opera

by Carol Brévart-Demm
Jan Hamer
"The bringing together of two people from opposite sides of an abyss, who initially look upon each other through a stereotypical lens, is the message of this opera," Hamer says, "as relevant to today's conflicts as to the one they lived through."

Lost Childhood, an opera that was more than a decade in the making, will debut its first orchestrated concert performance on Sat., Nov. 9, at 8 p.m. at The Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, Md. Directed by Piotr Gajewski, the performance by the National Philharmonic is intentionally scheduled to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the Reichskristallnacht (the "Night of the Broken Glass" that marked the beginning of the Holocaust).

Composer Janice Hamer, a visiting associate professor of music at the College since 2003, teaches musicianship skills - including sight-reading, ear-training, conducting, and figured bass. She and her cousin Mary Azrael, a poet and Bryn Mawr graduate who wrote the opera's libretto, have been collaborating on musical compositions for more than two decades. A previous project sparked the idea for an opera on the Holocaust. Lost Childhood, however, focuses less on the horrors of World War II than on finding a way past the shame and guilt in its aftermath, toward forgiveness, reconciliation, and hope.

Like many faculty projects, Lost Childhood is a Swarthmore family affair. Engineering and music double major and professional musician Dan Perelstein '09, who works in Philadelphia as a sound designer, is creating the sound effects recording. Mark Loria '08, a freelance pianist, organist, and conductor residing in New York City, developed the vocal score. English literature major Zahra Ahmed '15, from Washington, D.C.; history and music double major Robert Fain '14, from Lexington, Ohio; chemistry major Grace Quinn '15, from Wayland, Mass.; music and political science double major Jeremy Rapaport-Stein '14, from Princeton Junction, N.J.; and music teacher Ben Kapilow '13 are proofreading the instrumental parts.

The origin of Hamer's and Azrael's storyline for Lost Childhood is as compelling as the opera itself. They'd been reading memoirs, seeking a suitable topic, but ultimately the inspiration for the opera's main characters, says Hamer, presented itself in the flesh: Yehuda Nir, a Jewish psychiatrist, whose memoir The Lost Childhood gave the opera its name and much of its narrative; and Gottfried Wagner, great-grandson of Richard Wagner, the composer whose anti-Semitic affinities and grandiose operas with Germanic themes made him a favorite of Adolf Hitler. In fact, Hitler became a good friend of the Wagner family and frequent visitor to their villa in Bayreuth. Gottfried, however, ideologically far removed from the pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic Wagner family, was banished from Bayreuth-home to the famed Wagner Festival and the family's villa-and disinherited and expunged from the Wagner family tree.

Lost Childhood
A scene from The Lost Childhood. (Photo by Ariel Besor)

"Gottfried was 'the white sheep of the family,'" says Hamer.

Hamer had first learned of Gottfried Wagner while listening to NPR on the radio and hearing him speak. Having tuned in mid-program, she had no idea who he was. "He said he was born in 1947 - the same year as I was - and was the great-grandson of a famous composer," Hamer says, "so I was dying to know his identity. He spoke of his passionate lifelong commitment to intercultural understanding and of having co-founded the 1992 Post-Holocaust Dialogue Group to bring together Germans and Jews of the second generation."

Discovering Wagner's identity at the end of the program, Hamer, who was also engaged in promoting intercultural - particularly Israel-Palestine - dialogue and involved in other activities around reconciliation, wrote Wagner a "fan letter" and received a lengthy reply. They began a correspondence.

In 1993, Hamer, Wagner, and Nir met at a conference on genocide, where Nir gave Hamer a copy of The Lost Childhood and he and Wagner immediately became close friends-with each other and with Hamer.

"They started giving lectures together all over the world about their respective childhoods-that of the child of perpetrators and that of the survivor," Hamer says.

The nascent Lost Childhood was commissioned by American Opera Projects, a company in New York City that develops new works, says Hamer. "They put on little workshops as you write - scenes here, an act there - using piano and hiring the best singers they can. Some come from the Met and City Opera, fine singers who just want a week off from singing La Traviata, and they rehearse for a week and sing from score. Without those workshops, I never would have finished, and then it took me five years after the workshops to orchestrate," she says. The final workshop took place in 2007 at the International Vocal Arts Institute in Tel Aviv, Israel, where the entire opera was staged with singers and piano.

The opera's story revolves around two figures: Judah, a Jewish Holocaust survivor from Lvov, Poland, depicted in the opera as both a young boy during the war years and later as an adult psychiatrist at a conference in New York; and Manfred, his German colleague, born shortly after the war's end, the child of Nazi sympathizers. Both men are tormented by their respective "lost childhoods." As Judah, the Jewish child survivor, tells his story to Manfred, the child of Nazi perpetrators, they come to the realization that the horrors of the past belong to both of them but that hope can be engendered by forgiveness and mutual respect.

Hamer and Azrael were inspired by both the book and the burgeoning friendship of Nir and Wagner.

"Originally the opera was going to be based on just the memoir," Hamer says, "but then, we thought of a framing device, inspired by these two men at the conference. Eventually, that framing device became the main plot, and, as the opera progresses, you see a sort of crossing, from the childhood of the survivor to the relationship that forms between the two men."

"It's a big piece, so we can't perform it at the College, but our intention is to have this performance, record it, publicize it to people in the opera world, and get it into an opera house," Hamer says. "Judah and Manfred's interaction - the bringing together of two people from opposite sides of an abyss, who initially look upon each other through a stereotypical lens - is the message of this opera, as relevant to today's conflicts as to the one they lived through."