The opera begins rather innocently: It is 1960, and we’re on the deck of an English cruise ship. A German couple are sailing to South America. He is a diplomat taking up a new post. She is his loving wife, though somewhat prone to brooding.
But then something odd happens: The wife thinks she recognizes someone from her past among the other passengers. No, it couldn’t be. That woman is dead.
She confides in her husband: She reveals to him that she was in the S.S. during the war, and served as an overseer at Auschwitz. The woman she thinks she recognizes is Marta, a proud, defiant Polish inmate at the concentration camp, popular among the other prisoners, and for that reason condemned to death.
And then, through an extended flashback, the opera goes where no other opera has dared — into the depths of Auschwitz.
This is Mieczysław Weinberg’s 1968 opera The Passenger, which the magnificent Houston Grand Opera brought to the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan for three performances over the past weekend, and which I had the privilege of seeing Saturday night.
The Passenger is a startling work, at time brutal in its intensity but often quietly moving with passages of gentle lyricism. The opera is staged on a unique two-tiered set with the white surfaces and dress of the cruise ship atop the grays and blacks of Auschwitz, and the browns of uniforms.
The imagery of the concentration camp is by now familiar — the cramped slotted sleeping quarters, the drab striped robes, the ominous railroad tracks, the piles of confiscated belongings, the stone ovens. But through these scenes a humanity comes through as we learn the prisoners’ names and where they came from: “Warsaw, Kiev, Thessalonika, Riga, Smolensk, Zagreb, Budapest, Prague, Brussels, Minsk, Paris, Krakow, Copenhagen.” They tell each other their stories and hopes, sneak prayers and fleeting comforts.
This is an opera that might very well have never existed, or which might have been lost forever. The composer, Mieczysław Weinberg, was born in Warsaw in 1919 to a family active in the Yiddish theater. In 1939, at the outbreak of war with Germany, he fled Poland to the Soviet Union, where he studied music and composition. Later he learned that his parents and sisters were killed in the Trawniki concentration camp.
Weinberg’s early compositions caught the attention of Dmitri Shostakovich, who persuaded Weinberg to move to Moscow, where Weinberg maintained a lifelong friendship with the older composer and a friendly rivalry over who would compose the most string quartets. Weinberg eventually won that contest, 17 to 15. (An excellent introduction to Weinberg’s instrumental music is a recent two-CD release by ECM of violinist Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica ensemble.) Weinberg seems to have influenced Shostakovich as well in his explorations of Jewish music.
Yet for much of this time it was dangerous being a Jew in the Soviet Union. In February 1953, Weinberg was arrested on charges of “Jewish bourgeois nationalism” and likely only escaped execution with the death of Stalin.
It was Shostakovich who gave Weinberg a copy of the novel The Passenger by Zofia Posmysz, with a suggestion that it might make a good opera.
The Polish Roman Catholic Zofia Posmysz (who is still alive at the age of 90) was an 18-year-old student in Krakow in 1942 when she was arrested for distributing anti-Nazi literature. She was first sent to Auschwitz, and then later to a nearby camp until it was liberated in 1945.
In 1959, Zofia Posmysz was in Paris and suddenly heard the voice of one of the female overseers from the camp. It turned out not to be so, but she was able to turn the event into a radio play and then the 1962 novel The Passenger, in which she switches around the circumstances to tell the story from the perspective of the overseer who thinks she recognizes a former prisoner. The novel was made into a movie by Polish director Andrzej Munk before inspiring Mieczysław Weinberg to write some of his finest music.
Weinberg’s opera of The Passenger was originally supposed to be premiered by the Bolshoi Opera in 1968, but that performance was cancelled. Throughout that era, Soviet authorities remained suspicious and antagonistic of such works because they focused too much on Jewish suffering during the war rather than that of the Russians.
After that aborted premiere, The Passenger languished for decades. Shortly before Weinberg died in 1996, he regretted that he had never heard the opera performed. It wasn’t until 2006 that an unstaged concert performance occurred in Moscow, and then opera director David Pountney created a production first staged at the 2010 Bregenz Festival in Austria (available on Blu-ray), and then at the English National Opera, and eventually by Houston Grand Opera earlier this year.
Some of the emotional impact of The Passenger comes from its roots in the testimony of two Holocaust survivors. Yet, this should not detract from acknowledging Weinberg’s marvelous score.
The Passenger incorporates so many different types of music that in less capable hands it would degenerate into pastiche. Weinberg’s rather conservative forays into modernism here give the opera its appropriate anguish and emotional turmoil, but there are some arias of quite disarming beauty, as well as Russian and Yiddish folk music that floats through the score as lost fragments of humanity.
The opera also incorporates music that might seem harmless in other settings but here becomes ugly in its triteness. The light dance music played aboard the cruise ship by a guitar, drum, and bass trio is particularly (and deliberately) incongruous. Much worse is a garish German waltz first heard blaring over loudspeakers. This is the Commandant’s favorite music, and in a climactic scene, a prisoner is given a priceless confiscated violin to play this hideous waltz in an impromptu concert.
What comes next is some German music of a much different sort, and just for a little while, it suspends time and holds off the inevitable.