A Child in Striped Pyjamas: a new chamber opera by Noah Max

When John Boyne’s book The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was published in 2006, it immediately became an international bestseller. Boyne’s ‘fable’ presents a fictional account of the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp as seen through the eyes of two nine-year-old boys: Bruno, the son of the commandant at Auschwitz, and Shmuel, a Jewish prisoner. Described at the time by The Guardian as ‘a small wonder of a book’ and by The Independent as a ‘fine addition to a once taboo area of history’, it has now sold over 11 million copies and been translated into 57 languages, making it the most-translated Irish novel of all time. Two years after its publication Miramax adapted Boyne’s novel into a film starring Asa Butterfield as Bruno, Jack Scanlon as Shmuel and David Thewlis as the camp commandant. A stage play followed in 2015 and a dance version was choreographed by Northern Ballet in 2017.

In January next year, Boyne’s novel will take another new form when composer-conductor Noah Max’s chamber opera A Child in Striped Pyjamas premieres at The Cockpit Theatre in London. It’s clear that reading The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas as a child had a lasting influence on Noah. He describes the novel as a “masterpiece” – one which he first came across in his school library as an eight-year-old but which the librarian would not permit him to borrow and read until a few years later.  “The deeply symbolic nature of the story had a profound effect on me,” Noah explains. “I knew just a little about the Holocaust. We had lost family, my great-grandparents escaped Nazi-occupied Vienna in 1938. It was a topic we discussed around the Friday night dinner table sometimes. But I was too young to fully comprehend the horrific implications of writings by Primo Levi, Viktor Frankl, Elie Wiesel and others. These first-hand testimonies are crucial reading for all humanity, but absorbing them requires great maturity. I think it’s incredible that Striped Pyjamas is so popular with young children who perhaps have not yet discovered a love of reading – an extraordinary literary achievement.”

Noah Max

When I ask Noah why he thought Boyne’s novel was a good subject for an opera he draws attention to opera’s ability to “take an audience to a heightened state of emotional involvement”, more so than any other medium. “I think that opera has the strength as a genre to make audiences feel a real connection with profound symbolic tragedy. The Holocaust is a terrible and cataclysmic historical event which must be handled sensitively and with the requisite seriousness by artists. It seems to me that operas which present pure history lack something; for the genre to be at its most powerful some level of abstraction is needed. That’s why I chose not to make Primo Levi’s testimony If This Is A Man the subject of my opera. I don’t think that audiences will come out of the theatre thinking that everything they’ve seen literally happened, but they will come out asking lots of questions about themselves and the dark side of human potential.”

Boyne’s novel has had a mixed critical reception. The New York Times suggested that ‘there is something awkward about the way Boyne manages to disguise, and then to disclose, the historical context […] To mold the Holocaust into an allegory, as Boyne does here with perfectly benign intent, is to step away from its reality’. Moreover, as the novel has become widely used as a pedagogic tool for Holocaust education, criticism of the ‘inaccuracy’ of Boyne’s representation has arisen. “The novel has its detractors, including the Holocaust Educational Trust. But, the Trust are currently reviewing their stance as they seek to work with the book and its popularity, not against it. The novel is not factual and it wasn’t written to be a teaching aide.

Vocal rehearsal for A Child in Striped Pyjamas

“In any case, children know and Boyne makes clear that the story isn’t literally true – if they think it is, then it’s because they’ve been poorly taught. It’s a parable. We tend to associate parables with Jesus, yet he was hardly the only Rabbi using the parable as a method of moral teaching twenty centuries ago. The moral of Boyne’s parable is a display of the organised barbarity of which humanity is capable, and it is crucial to confront this in an age when people are denying the Holocaust. It has been argued that the novel humanises the perpetrators of evil. What it actually does, to terrifying effect, is show that the Nazis were human too, made of flesh and blood; we share 99% of their DNA.  If anything, each of us has the capacity to bring about even worse horrors today because technology has advanced but our morality has not. As far as I can tell, the last great moral philosopher was the late Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks.” Sacks, a celebrated figure in both religious and secular thought, passed away in 2020.

Noah was encouraged to explore his own Jewish heritage by his mentor, the late John Whitfield, who founded Endymion Ensemble in 1979 and died in 2019. “I grew up in the United Synagogue community, observing some Orthodox Jewish traditions. I attended synagogue, kept Kosher and enjoyed Jewish food, observed festivals and had a wonderful Bar Mitzvah. But in my mid-teens I rebelled and wanted to explore other things. On his deathbed, John Whitfield urged me to investigate my family history, religious background and the Holocaust, and to do so through music.” I ask Noah if he feels that his music is different as a result. “It was John’s final gift to me. It forced me to write the music I needed to write, and this has shaped me on a spiritual, moral and personal level. John and I talked a lot about the novel for several years; the idea was in the bottom drawer, so to speak, from 2018.  It was a slow burner, but when the pandemic came I had the opportunity to finally compose the opera.”

I wonder if Noah is concerned that, because Boyne’s novel is so widely read, audiences will bring preconceptions to performances of the opera? “To be honest, there were so many problems bringing this opera to fruition that I deemed that a pretty low-order problem – I didn’t really think about it!” The entertainment company Miramax bought the rights to Boyne’s story when they made the 2008 film, and when Noah sought permission to compose and produce the opera they initially demanded a $1 million rights fee. It was shortly before The Jewish Chronicle published an article about Noah’s difficulties in getting the project moving that Miramax entered into a collaboration with Noah. “John Boyne was very keen for the opera to be created, but he had sold the rights long ago. It’s an important lesson for creatives. You produce an artwork and then fifteen years down the line you may no longer own that work.” 

Noah found the compositional process challenging too. “It was by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. I’m curious to know how audiences will respond. Some people have sat in on rehearsals and it’s been interesting watching how they engage with the music. In theatre, audiences have to be quick on the uptake to discern the playwright’s subtext. Music brings that subtext bubbling to the surface with immediacy.”  Noah comes back to my question about the book’s popularity. “The ending of the book is very quiet, while that of the film is very loud. But both versions are dominated by a central image: two boys, either side of a barbed wire fence. That image has become part of our culture. When composing the opera, I had a sense of needing to live up to that image. It was a privilege to work with such potent material.”

Has Noah’s compositional language changed in the process of writing the opera? “It’s enabled me to make a definite step towards integrating Jewish liturgical music into my compositional voice,” he explains. “The music always has a tonal centre and there are chords and intervallic sequences which function as the DNA of the piece. Even the more angular writing has a melodic heart.” I ask about his decision to score the work for a chamber ensemble of four singers, string quartet, clarinet and trumpet. “A big Romantic scoring wouldn’t have been appropriate. There were practical reasons, too. I wanted the opera to be portable, suitable for touring. I hope that it’s performed by many different companies and reaches many audiences. It can be put together without the need for vast financial resources, and it could be performed as a fully staged opera, in a semi-staged version or even in concert as an oratorio.”

When I ask Noah about the musical influences which have informed his opera, the response reveals an eclectic range of stimuli. “There have been a few operas about the Holocaust before, such as Mieczysław Weinberg’s The Passenger, and operas that were written during the Holocaust, Der Kaiser von Atlantis by Viktor Ullmann and Peter Kien for example. And there is the music of those composers who survived Theresienstadt such as Pavel Haas, Gideon Klein and Hans Krasa. Of contemporary composers, the late Anthony Payne was a huge influence. He’s best known for his completion of the score of Elgar’s Third Symphony but his own music has been unjustly neglected. Ronald Corp, too. I joined his New London Children’s Choir when I was seven years old; he later became a mentor. We talk a lot about opera, text-setting and the Divine.

“Melanie Daiken, a student of Messiaen in the same class as George Benjamin, has also been an influence. She sadly died in 2016 and my string trio Sojourn, which won the Clements Prize for Composers in 2021, was written in her memory. Then, Messiaen himself, Bartók … I’m a chamber musician, so Haydn’s string quartets, Beethoven’s late quartets, the viol consorts of Orlando Gibbons, as well as Zeitmasse for wind quintet by Stockhausen.” Despite these diverse influences, Noah believes that his own compositional voice is clearer in this opera than it has ever been before. “Some of the more hellish music is angular and at times challenging to listen to. In those moments I think of Vaughan Williams’ remark after composing the Fourth Symphony: ‘I don’t like it, but it is what I intended’!”

Noah’s opera, A Child in Striped Pyjamas, adapts Boyne’s title. “Yes, ‘child’ is more symbolic. The opera is about childhood, fathers and children, the destruction of innocence. The vocal parts are too expansive for children to sing, though. The German Child is a soprano role, which I think conveys their naivety, while the Jewish Child is a mezzo-soprano, the depth and richness of which suggests that he senses terrible things even if he cannot articulate them.” 

Echo Ensemble

Musicians from the Echo Ensemble, which Noah founded in 2016, will perform the instrumental parts. I wonder if Noah has collaborated with any of the cast previously? “I met Susanna MacRae during the pandemic when she performed a setting of Yeats that I composed for soprano and viola. It was performed on Zoom [part of Echo Ensemble’s online series The Echo Chamber] and we had great fun making the recording. We immediately had a great working relationship; she critiqued my writing in immensely helpful ways. I met Jeremy Huw Williams [who plays The Father, a bass-baritone role] more recently, and Rachel Roper (Jewish Child) and Xavier Hetherington [who plays Lieutenant Kotler, a tenor role] were introduced to me by Guido Martin-Brandis who is directing the opera. It’s been a real pleasure to work with them as they get to know the piece.  The writing is complex and the emotional challenges are considerable too; the musicians are constantly on high alert. I find as a composer there’s often a fine line between ‘very very hard’ and ‘too hard’, so it’s been inspiring to tread that line together.” 

I remark that after five years of working on the project, Noah must be very excited that the first performance is less than two months away. “When you say that it feels very soon! It’s been an odyssey.  Vocal rehearsals began in September and our first full rehearsal is later this week. We had a half-day workshop with the Holocaust Educational Trust, during which they talked to the musicians about the history of the Holocaust and a survivor spoke about her experiences. It was very harrowing and strengthened our awareness of what’s at stake. Performing the opera is a moving experience but we must fulfil our responsibility to the audience: to touch their hearts and make them think.”

A Child in Striped Pyjamas will be performed at the Cockpit Theatre on 11th and 12th January 2023. Tickets are available via The Cockpit’s website: https://www.thecockpit.org.uk/show/a_child_in_striped_pyjamas

Claire Seymour