Opera UCLA presents a new work based on a Holocaust memoir

The unlikely friendship between a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust and the great-grandson of a legendary composer, whose work was embraced by Adolf Hitler, inspired the creation of the opera “ Lost Childhood, “ which will have its world premiere staged production at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse on May 17.

Presented in collaboration with Opera UCLA, UCLA Philharmonia and the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, “Lost Childhood” features performers from the school of music as well as scenic and lighting designs by M.F.A. students from the UCLA Department of Theater.

Commissioned and developed by American Opera Projects, “Lost Childhood” is based on both the memoir of Yehuda Nir, a prominent psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor, and Nir’s friendship with the author Gottfried Wagner, a man who has struggled with the controversial legacy of his great-grandfather, the composer Richard Wagner. The opera presents fictionalized characters of both men, Judah Gruenfeld (based on Nir) and Manfred Geyer (based on Wagner).

“Yehuda, who died in 2014, and Gottfried, were proponents of dialogue as a way to further reconciliation,” said Peter Kazaras, director of Opera UCLA and professor of music at the Herb Alpert School of Music. “Their message is imparted with searing emotion and heartwarming lyricism. And, though the music recollects the terrors of the Holocaust, it also inspires a hopeful vision of the future.”

The opera explores Judah’s memories of significant moments in his wartime Polish childhood, as he shares them with an increasingly uncomfortable Manfred who is struggling to come to terms with his own family’s culpability in the genocide. In moments tender and profound, the men realize that Judah’s recounting his experience, together with Manfred’s struggle to comprehend them emotionally, can begin the process for healing.

The composer of “Lost Childhood,” Janice Hamer, and librettist, Mary Azrael, were friendly with Nir and Wagner, and it was that relationship that led to the development of the opera’s two fictionalized protagonists.

Hamer, the recipient of numerous compositional awards and fellowships, has had her choral, chamber and orchestral pieces performed by international choruses and orchestras. Her compositions have been influenced by the tutelage of Thea Musgrave and Earl Kim, who was a student of Arnold Schoenberg, UCLA’s first professor of composition, from 1936 to 1944.

Azrael, a poet whose work is often set to music, first collaborated with Hamer on the award-winning choral piece, “On Paper Bridges.” Other collaborative works include her poem “Loving the Aliens,” which was set to music and performed by Chris Mandra for The Synesthesia Project at the American Visionary Art Museum, and “Three Riddles,” which was set for children’s chorus by Betty Bertaux. She has also collaborated with the visual artists John Wise, Kevin Labadie and James Condron.


May 17, 21 and 23, 8 p.m.
May 19, 2 p.m.
UCLA Freud Playhouse

Each performance will be followed by a Q&A with the audience and artists. The May 21 performance will be preceded by a panel discussion exploring the role of memory and trauma in understanding the artists’ representation of the Holocaust, presented by the music school’s Lowell Milken Fund for American Jewish Music.

Visit the Herb Alpert School of Music calendar for information and tickets.

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