Opera UCLA’s 2018-2019 season recently closed with the premiere of a new work, Lost Childhood. The central character, Judah (performed by Eric Levintow, M.M. ’19), recalls his childhood in the Holocaust in a conversation with the grandson of the composer and Nazi sympathizer Richard Wagner. While the two characters converse, Judah’s memories of his tragic childhood materialize onstage.
Lost Childhood is based on Holocaust survivor Yehuda Nir’s memoir The Lost Childhood. In an interview with Samantha Webster (B.A. ’20), Levintow shared how he brought his personal history and experience as a former political science major to bare on his interpretation of the role.
What did you do to prepare for the role of Judah? I read Yehuda Nir’s memoir The Lost Childhood. I also refreshed my memory on the events during and surrounding WWII. Also, I drew on my own experiences as a Jewish person in order to get to the heart of this character. The events of the Holocaust were very present in my upbringing and through my family. For all I know, Yehuda Nir could have been my grandfather in some alternate reality. My grandparents belonged to that generation of Jews, and that connection made it more personal for me to dive into a character like Judah.
How did your vocal coaches help prepare you for the role? With a new work, my coaches and I are both learning at the same time, so we are constantly collaborating and sharing our thoughts and impressions. Beyond making sure the pitches and rhythms are accurate, we analyze the text in the context of the music and drama and see how we can bring the words to life. A conductor once told me, “Mean what you say, and say what you mean.” I try to keep that in mind whenever I am preparing and performing a role.
What was your biggest challenge? I found it emotionally challenging to play Judah. Everything I know about the character is drawn from Yehuda Nir’s writings or from what I’ve heard from the people that did know him, so I had to approximate his mannerisms, voice, and the way he carried himself based on people like him who I’ve met throughout my life. And vocally, Judah is a challenging role. He is a more mature character and an older man. I’m a 26 year old boy, so sometimes I have to make a conscious effort to fit into that more mature style without compromising my technique. Also, the show has dense, orchestral textures, and it is tough for a younger singer to sing over such a thick orchestration.
What is your operatic dream role? My dream role? There are so many! I would really like to sing the Duke in Rigoletto, Alfredo from La Traviata, Nemorino from L’elisir d’amore. I love the Italian repertoire – that’s part of the other side of my family. I absolutely love the Bel Canto, Italian style of singing. It’s what drew me to opera in the first place.
How is performing a modern opera based on real events different than interpreting the Duke from Rigoletto, or any of your other dream roles? You’re interpreting the events of someone’s life. However, the groundwork for singing something in the standard repertories remains the same when singing a modern opera. It is important to focus on character motivations and subtexts no matter when the work was written. You still have to prepare the music correctly and know what you’re saying. In fact, characters within the standard repertoire still face emotional difficulty, even if their conflicts are not as topical and real as the conflicts in Lost Childhood. In that sense, there is not such a big difference between new operatic works and operas from the standard repertoire.
I was a singer in the chorus, and I found the music to be really demanding. Did you face difficulties in learning the score? Yes, a lot of the score mimics natural speech patterns, which are irregular in terms of cadence and beats. This irregularity is reflected in the musical notation, so the meter fluctuates a lot and the music is not as intuitive. Also, the work’s harmonic idiom is modern and dissonant, which makes it difficult to sing and interpret everything as it was written. It’s not as straightforward as Mozart. Mozart may be challenging in other ways, but as far as learning the pitches and rhythms, this was about the hardest work I have learned.
What is the importance of preserving these stories? There will soon come a time when there will be no living Holocaust survivors, or for that matter, fewer and fewer people will remember WWII. We will soon lose a personal connection to those events and that time period, so it’s important that we keep these memories alive through retelling them and making art. We need to prevent these events from becoming words on a page or statistics in history books.
How has Lost Childhood left an effect on you? Lost Childhood is one of the most rewarding experiences I have been a part of. One of the reasons I like doing theater and opera is that you get to have these experiences bonding with different people while delivering a powerful message to an audience. I am also grateful that this show is preparing me to do more new operas in the future. And I’m most looking forward to shaving off this itchy moustache once the show closes. *Laughs* I can’t stand it. I had to grow it because [Yehuda Nir] had a moustache, but I can’t stand it.
The opera Lost Childhood was composed by Janice Hamer, libretto by Mary Azrael. Opera UCLA’s production of Lost Childhood is the first show in a series of three staged productions written by living female composers. This fall, Opera UCLA will be staging the second – the world premiere of Juana, a new opera composed by Carla Lucero, libretto by Alicia Gaspar de Alba. Click here for more information on Opera UCLA.
Samantha Webster is a third year undergraduate at UCLA, double majoring in voice/opera performance and English.