Holocaust Specter Haunts Weinberg Opera Passenger
By Mike Greenberg
HOUSTON – As a subject for theater, Auschwitz presents a problem. We know that all those who passed through Auschwitz, whether the Germans who ran the concentration camp or the million (or more) prisoners they killed, were individual human beings with specific stories. Such stories are the heart of theater. But the circumstances that brought these individuals together were so extreme, the sheer number of the dead so vast, and the apparatus of extermination so monstrous, that it is difficult to see the participants except in the aggregate and as representatives of types – the murderers on one side, the murdered on the other.
It is perhaps inevitable, then, that the libretto of Mieczysław Weinberg’s long-suppressed opera The Passenger, given its U.S. premiere by Houston Grand Opera on Jan. 18, leaves us wondering who its central characters are on the inside. Yet Weinberg’s music is so extraordinary and so attentive to the specifics of each theatrical moment that The Passenger deserves to be considered a masterpiece.
Weinberg (1919-96) was a young Polish Jew – a pianist and budding composer – who fled advancing German troops in 1939, crossed the border into the Soviet Union, and stayed there. He had lost his entire family in Poland. In Russia, he worked tirelessly, producing 20 numbered symphonies (not counting chamber symphonies and sinfoniettas), 17 string quartets, and a raft of concerti, sonatas, and film scores.
He also struck up a friendship with Dmitri Shostakovich, who became a significant influence on the Polish émigré’s own music. It was Shostakovich who suggested to Weinberg that he compose an opera and who introduced him to the music critic and librettist Alexander Medvedev. They found their subject in a novel by the Polish Catholic writer Zofia Posmysz, an Auschwitz survivor.
Weinberg composed the music in 1967 and 1968, but the expected premiere at the Bolshoi was scotched. The critic Alex Ross, writing in The New Yorker in 2011, speculated: “Evidently, the opera’s emphasis on Polish and Jewish suffering, as opposed to the Russian struggle, made it undesirable.”
Astonishingly, The Passenger was not fully staged until 2010, when the Bregenz Festival in Austria presented it in a co-production with the Wielki Teatr in Warsaw, English National Opera in London, and Teatro Real in Madrid. Houston Grand Opera restaged that same production and intends to take it to the New York’s Park Avenue Armory for the Lincoln Center Festival this July. In 2015, Lyric Opera of Chicago plans to stage The Passenger in the multiple languages of the characters, using the same physical production but a different cast and Lyric’s own orchestra. (The original libretto by Medvedev is in Russian; the Houston performances were given in English translation.)
As The Passenger opens, Liese, a former SS overseer, is accompanying her German diplomat husband on a ship bound for Brazil. She becomes frightened when she sees a fellow passenger who reminds her of a Polish prisoner, Marta, whom she had tormented in Auschwitz 15 years earlier. Liese is not ashamed of what she had done – she had acted in service to her “beloved Führer,” after all – but she fears that Marta will recognize her and bring her past into the open. Her husband, Walter, unaware of Liese’s work in Auschwitz until her shipboard confession, worries that a revelation might end his career.
Most of the opera is a flashback to Auschwitz. Marta shares barracks with a sampling of other women – French, Czech, Jewish, Russian. Her fiancé, Tadeusz, a violinist and artist, is also a prisoner, and a chance event brings the lovers together for the first time in two years. Liese, observing their meeting, offers to let them meet again, but she hints of a price. Tadeusz refuses. He is ordered to play the violin for the camp commandant, who wishes to hear his favorite waltz, but in an act of defiance Tadeusz instead plays Bach’s Chaconne in D minor and is dragged to his death.
Back on the ship, Liese and her husband decide that they will ignore the threat from the past and dance the night away. “We all have the right to forget the past,” Walter says. But the mysterious passenger approaches the dance band and makes a request – the Auschwitz commandant’s favorite waltz. There is a silent confrontation between Liese and the mysterious passenger, but it ends indeterminately. In the final scene, a bare space that might be Heaven, Marta sings of her memories and the need to remember the lost.
One can hear hints and echoes of Shostakovich here and there, but Weinberg is very much his own man. If Shostakovich composes in big, sweeping paragraphs, Weinberg composes in details, all crisply rendered by conductor Patrick Summers and the HGO Orchestra.
Weinberg’s music is protean, layered, and immensely varied in color and texture, constantly adjusting to the dramatic situation. He is especially adept at integrating a wide range of sources into a coherent, consistent, and distinctive vocabulary. The music in the shipboard scenes refers to the jazz and dance music of the 1950s. Grotesque parodies of German and Austrian folk tunes (including “Ach, du lieber Augustin”) infect the scenes with the SS officers. The orchestral support for some of the female prisoners recalls Christian liturgical music. The horrors of Auschwitz find expression in restless, spiky, slashing music.
But there are moments of spare, ethereal beauty in the music for the prisoners as they pray or dream of freedom. The emotional center of the opera is a soaring, extended aria for Marta, who considers how she would wish to die – comforted by the singing of birds or fighting to the last. Amazingly, for a composer who had never before composed an opera, the writing for the voice is consistently beautiful. (Six more operas would follow from Weinberg’s pen.)
The HGO cast responded with sumptuous singing from nearly all quarters. Top marks go to the Marta of soprano Melody Moore, a singer of great warmth and urgency. Mezzo-soprano Michelle Breedt’s instrument seemed ideally suited to the role of Liese – the voice was like a crème brûlée, a rich egg-custard core with a hard edge. Morgan Smith’s velvety baritone was a joy to hear in the role of Tadeusz. Tenor Joseph Kaiser was a stirring Walter. Several members of the Houston Grand Opera Studio shone as prisoners and SS officers.
Stage director David Pountney and set designer Johan Engels conceived the production in consultation with librettist Medvedev. The upper decks of the ocean liner rise high at center stage. The women’s barracks roll in around the ship on a circular track. Fabrice Kebour’s superb chiaroscuro lighting recalls film noir. Costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca dresses all the ship’s passengers in stark white, the prisoners in astutely varied rags. Choristers in neutral modern dress stand on an upper level and look down upon the Auschwitz scenes. In his essay on the production, Pountney explains that Medvedev imagined the choristers as “observers from a third time zone – the present.”
From that perspective, Auschwitz is history that bears the burden of moral obligation: Remembering Auschwitz is now essential to our humanity. The Passenger shares in that burden, and carries it with rare grace.
The opera continues through Feb. 2. For details, click here.
Mike Greenberg is an independent critic and photographer living in San Antonio, Texas. He is the author of The Poetics of Cities (Ohio State University Press, 1995). He was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 1986-87. He served as managing editor of Chicago Magazine and was a critic and columnist for a daily newspaper for 28 years.