Saturday 15 October 2022

Doing it with the requisite seriousness is key: composer Noah Max & director Guido Martin-Brandis on bringing Holocaust story, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas to the operatic stage.

Noah Max's A Child in Striped Pyjamas in rehearsal
Noah Max's A Child in Striped Pyjamas in rehearsal 
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a 2006 novel by Irish novelist John Boyne that deals with the Holocaust via the device of two boys, one German one Jewish, either side of the fence at the concentration camp. The novel has been turned into a film and a ballet, and now it is going to be an opera. 

Noah Max's operatic treatment of the subject, A Child in the Striped Pyjamas will be premiered at the Cockpit Theatre on 11 January 2023 with Noah Max conducting the Echo Ensemble, directed by Guido Martin-Brandis. Noah's disc of songs and chamber music, Songs of Loneliness was recently issued on Toccata Classics [see my review], whilst Guido directed Richard Strauss' Die ägyptische Helena for Fulham Opera [see my review]

Noah had read Boyne's novel at school but had not considered it as an operatic subject until the conductor John Whitfield (1957-2019) brought the idea up. Towards the end of his life, Whitfield was something of a mentor to Noah and he pressed Noah to explore the subject. It had personal resonances, Noah's family only narrowly escaped from Vienna, and Whitfield was convinced that creating such a work would help Noah to mature as a composer. Whitfield died shortly before the pandemic, and Noah took the time created in 2020 to look at the book again and explore the idea of an opera.

Noah sees the piece was a deep, symbolic tragedy. He worked on his own libretto, slimming down the book radically. But once he had written the libretto, Noah then put it to one side and finally finished the opera in late 2021. Boyne's book was made into a film by Miramax, who own the rights; Noah spent two years attempting to contact Miramax, with no success. Their approach to the ballet version of the book (created for Northern Ballet) had been supportive, with the rights being affordable and Noah had assumed that Miramax would regard the opera similarly. Unfortunately not, and their initial fee would have been around $1 Million. Communication with Miramax was tricky until the subject was taken up by a journalist at the Jewish Chronicle. But then Miramax's attitude changed, and they have been thankfully supportive, and Noah admits that the project could not have gone ahead without their continuing support.

Director Guido Martin-Brandis came on board after the opera was written, but it is clear that Noah and Guido make an excellent team, with them bouncing ideas off each other throughout our interview. when we met up, plans were well advanced for the performances, and they had started the vocal coaching. Guido comments that, unlike a lot of fringe opera projects, Noah is unbelievably well organised. The premiere at the Cockpit will involve six instrumentalists from Noah's Echo Ensemble, soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists as the two children and tenor and bass soloists as the adults. In two acts, the opera lasts 75 minutes. The production will be something more than a semi-staging, the two call it a treatment, but falls just shy of an elaborate staging.

Whilst book and opera both treat one of the darkest episodes in human history, one that is very difficult to properly engage with, the book was aimed at children (though it has been popular with adults) and leaves a lot out. Boyne's book has come in for some criticism from an historical point of view, but Noah sees it is symbolic rather than realistic, and points out that the book's remarkable success is responsible for getting younger children reading about a topic that they would not otherwise do. The production will reflect this and be somewhat abstracted, rather than aiming for realism.

Guido refers to the logic which was applied to the Nazi's Final Solution as the dark side of the Enlightenment, where rationalism was applied to killing and thus negating the Enlightenment idea that civilisation would only rise to greater levels. And there is a sort of twisted humour applied to the Nazi's project too, witness the motto 'Arbeit macht frei' which was over the entrance to Auschwitz. In the opera, these attitudes are all distilled through the German father, who is the camp commandant. He knows that the atrocities are wrong but has convinced himself that they are for the good of the Fatherland and to make a safe future for his family. These are attitudes that we can recognise, in far smaller ways they are things that we all do.

Noah's trimming of the original book has removed many more interesting characters that he did not feel were inherently necessary to the key elements of the story. The opera starts with the beginning of the drama, whereas the book has initial chapters which are scene-setting. Noah feels that he has pared the book down to its symbolic essence, and the work's symbolism comes partly because Noah sees the two children (who find that they share a common birthday) as being two sides of the same child, that the key element to the story is innocence being destroyed.

Not all the opera is dark, despite the powerful subject matter and the tragic ending, and during our discussions Noah and Guido have a lively back-and-forth about whether there is a redemptive quality to the story; certainly, there are lighter moments in the darkness, it is possible to have a human connection despite everything. Unlike the book, most of the opera takes place at the fence, partly so that it is stageable. Boyne's book deftly gets into the mind of the children and is beautifully written. An element of dark humour comes in the German child's approach to the world, which introduces a bitter-sweet element.

Noah Max & the Echo Ensemble at the Royal Albert Hall
Noah Max & the Echo Ensemble at the Royal Albert Hall

Some of the changes between book and opera arise because of the very different nature of the genres and Guido points out that drama in opera has to be very direct with the action being clear. Also, if you are making an artwork on the subject of the Holocaust, then you have to make a strong statement. Whilst Noah has tried to address some of the concerns that people have about the book, but both he and Guido are firmly of the opinion that we must understand that opera is not real, does not represent reality directly but symbolically. And overall, with such a difficult topic they feel that the key is doing things with the requisite seriousness.

Noah Max: A Child in Striped Pyjamas

Noah Max: A Child in Striped Pyjamas
11 & 12 January 2023 
Cockpit Theatre

The Father - Ashley Riches (bass)
Jewish Child - Rachel Roper (mezzo-soprano)
German Child - Susanna MacRae (soprano)
Lieutenant Kotler - Xavier Hetherington (tenor)

Echo Ensemble
Noah Max (conductor)
Guido Martin-Brandis (director)

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