Composer to stage opera of Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Hampstead Garden Suburb composer Noah Max has penned an opera The Child in Striped Pyjamas

Hampstead Garden Suburb composer Noah Max has penned an opera The Child in Striped Pyjamas - Credit: Liz Isles

Hampstead Garden Suburb composer Noah Max has won his bid to stage an opera of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas.

Miramax, which owns the rights to John Boyne's children's novel, initially said it would cost him $1 million to put on the 75 minute piece.

But after successful representations, the media firm is drawing up contracts for a more affordable £5,000.

Max, whose maternal great grand-parents Chaim and Klara Tennenhaus left Austria in the 1930s as the Nazis rose to power, wrote A Child in Striped Pyjamas during lockdown.

"Some might say starting to write it before getting the rights was foolhardy," he says. "But having a meaningful task to pursue during a culturally arid time was incredibly useful and kept me sane."

Boyle's 2006 bestseller views the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp through the eyes of two nine-year-old boys; Bruno, the son of the camp commander; and Schmuel, a Jewish prisoner. Miramax filmed it in 2008 starring David Thewlis and Asa Butterfield, and Northern Ballet created a dance version in 2016.

"I read the book in school quite young and it made a huge impression on me," says Max. "It led me in later life to explore testimony in Yad Vashem and to read Primo Levi, who also influenced John Boyle. John has consistently been supportive of my project but had no rights to the material."

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Max was also inspired by his mentor, the founder of Endymion ensemble, John Whitfield, who died in November 2019.

"One of the last times I saw him in hospital he said: 'When are you going to dig deep into your soul and family history and write music about the fate that befell your ancestors. What would that bring out in you as a creative musician?'"

While writing the libretto, Max spent months trying to reach the right person at Miramax.

"I finally got to the right people, spoke to someone on Zoom and they agreed to do it for $1 million. I said: 'I think there has been some mistake, no one makes big bucks from Holocaust education and I have no Arts Council funding.'"

He hopes to stage A Child in Striped Pyjamas in January 2023.

"I've got every confidence that we will get the go ahead and I hope it gets taken up by different opera companies and ensembles. I would really like it to travel."

Both book and film have been criticised as unrealistic by Holocaust Education charities, who say the camp is strongly signposted as Auschwitz where nine-year-olds like Schmuel were mostly sent straight to the gas chambers. A child like Bruno would have joined the Hitler Youth and wouldn't be oblivious to antisemitism.

Actors Jack Scanlon and Asa Butterfield attends the world premiere of 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjama

Actors Jack Scanlon and Asa Butterfield attend the world premiere of 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas' 2008 - Credit: PA

"There are some who have problematised it," agrees Max. "But the book makes it clear it's a fable and didn't really happen. It's very hard to convince children to read a book about something as dark and serious as the Holocaust and what I find amazing is that while not all adults get the profound symbolism of the story, kids get it. They pick up on the fact that the children have the same birthday and are the same child."

Max believes opera is a good form to tell this tale of "children and innocence lost".

"The film was set in a very realistic version of Auschwitz but no one can walk out of my opera thinking 'that was a true story'," he says.

"It's a dark piece. The Holocaust is loss of innocence. We see the children innocently getting on with each other. The father is the symbol of antisemitism who exterminates the innocents, doing what he thinks is right for the Fatherland, then realises he's perpetrated evil and extinguished his own son. Human tragedy is at the heart of opera and it works well for the symbolism of this story."

He hopes his opera helps audiences see the story afresh.

"I hope they walk out having been moved and provoked to think deeply about what it means to never forget the Holocaust. It reminds us as human beings we have the power to organise genocide and mass murder. It's about taking responsibility for our darker capabilities, and that is a message for Jews and non Jews."

Noah Max and his Echo Ensemble perform at the Proms at St Jude's 2022 in Hampstead Garden Suburb

Noah Max and his Echo Ensemble perform at the Proms at St Jude's 2022 in Hampstead Garden Suburb - Credit: Liz Isles

Max and his Echo Ensemble are regulars at his local music festival, the Proms at St Jude's. For the 2022 Proms on June 27 he will conduct alongside his cellist father Robert Max playing Tchaikovsky Variations on a Rococo Theme, Haydn Symphony No 47, his own The Candle Lagoon, and Schubert No 5 in B major.

Robert also plays a song written especially for him on his son's debut album Songs of Loneliness.

"We get on," says Max who lives with his parents in the suburb. "We make music together."

Details and tickets for the 2022 Proms at St Jude's music events are at www.promsatstjudes.org.uk/2022-music