A rare opera about the Holocaust written nearly half a century ago just received its U.S. premiere in Texas. KERA’s Bill Zeeble reports on the Houston Grand Opera’s production of The Passenger, based on a story by a Holocaust survivor, with music from a composer who lost his entire family in Nazi death camps.
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The Passenger is based on a story set in the mid-1950s by Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz. The character Liese, a former Nazi camp officer, is on a cruise with her husband. She thinks she sees a former prisoner. “There’s something strange about her manner. Unearthly,” she tells her husband, Walter.
Liese’s kept her Nazi past secret. Ship scenes unfold on the all-white upper deck, Auschwitz sequences in the shadowy dark prison hell – essentially below deck. The same scene continues in the past, as Liese’s superior reinforces Nazi rule: “Is something wrong Aufseherin Franz? Why hesitate? That’s not like you. Remember, you are serving the Fatherland and the Fuehrer.”
The Passenger was written in 1967 by Polish-born, Russian-schooled Mieczyslaw Weinberg. The young Jewish musician escaped Warsaw in 1939. He never heard The Passenger performed. Director David Pountney says after the Soviet Union’s collapse, a lot of previously unknown music got picked up by other publishers. “And they sent around leaflets basically saying ‘Weinberg,’ who I had never heard of, ‘friend of Shostakovich, opera about Auschwitz,'” recalls Pountney. “You know it was one of those bits of paper on its way to the wastepaper basket and luckily I said ‘What?’ Friend of Shostakovich? Auschwitz? What is this?’”
Weinberg’s friend and teacher, Dmitri Shostakovich, called the opera a perfect masterpiece.
Pountney first presented The Passenger in 2010 to Austrian audiences, then took it to London, now Houston. Patrick Summers, the opera company’s artistic director calls it stunning — which doesn’t make it easy on audiences. “It’s unrelentingly dark,” he says, “there’s no point in trying to pretend it isn’t.”
Weinberg writes percussive, disjointed music for prison scenes, jazzy sequences on the boat, and spare, lyrical vocal writing. Soprano Melody Moore and baritone Morgan Smith sing the roles of prisoners who are in love. Moore says, “And suddenly everything stops. Literally, the music. There are two spot lights. Everything is down to a pinpoint. ‘You’re alive?” one asks. “You’re alive!” they both sing.
Smith says, “They have no idea they were going to see each other, completely surprised by the circumstances that suddenly put them together.”
They won’t survive together. Smith’s character is ordered to play a waltz on the violin for the Commandant, but defiantly plays Bach instead. The character’s beaten, dragged away, his violin’s smashed.
So yes, says Patrick Summers, it’s dark. But he says The Passenger does what great art’s supposed to do. It changes how we see things.
“We’ve been rehearsing this since two weeks before Christmas. I’ve noticed autumn leaves on the ground here in Houston in a way that I’ve not before. It’s made me appreciate things that are around me every day.”
Summers says this work doesn’t offer a moral. It solves no problems. It just asks us, begs us, to remember.