The Holocaust damaged humanity profoundly. Can art help us find that wrecked humanity even when it lies within a Nazi?
This weekend Houston Grand Opera will present the American Premiere of Mieczysław Weinberg‘s The Passenger, with a libretto by Alexander Medvedev. It’s a chilling piece, a horror opera that tells the story of prisoners and guards in the concentration camp we know as Auschwitz. It won’t make you feel uplifted nor will it make you certain of the triumph of the human spirit, but it will show you with unflinching sincerity the effects genocide has upon not only its victims, but those who carry it out.
Out of sight of the eye of the heavens, out of sight of the all-seeing sunlight, they call you a prison, concentration camp, that is what you are called. A prisoner may be granted his freedom, from a camp, one hopes to return home, but the gates of Auschwitz only open inwards.
–The Passenger, English translation by David Pountney, after Alexander Medvedev
Liese and Walter are leaving Germany. He has been given a diplomatic post in Brazil and is excited about the sea voyage before them, especially the dancing. She is unwell, prone to depression and migraines. Her condition worsens considerably when she encounters a mysterious, veiled lady on the ship. Walter is concerned and alarmed. In questioning Liese, he is dismayed to learn for the first time that she was an Overseer with the SS at Auschwitz. She begins to relive suppressed memories of the camp, including her interactions with and attempted blackmail of Marta, a Polish prisoner. She is convinced that the woman died there, yet she becomes equally certain that the strange passenger aboard the ship is Marta.
Mieczysław Weinberg was born in 1919 in Warsaw, Poland, to an artistic Jewish family. His father was a conductor and composer and his mother an actress. Before moving to Warsaw from Moldova, then part of the Soviet Union, they had lost relatives in a pogrom in Kishinev. At the outbreak of World War II, Weinberg, a student at the Warsaw Conservatory, fled on foot to the Soviet Union with his younger sister. Unable to bear the separation, his sister returned home to be with their parents and perished alongside them in the Trawniki concentration camp. Settling in Minsk, he later evacuated to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. He met Dmitri Shostakovich, who became a friend and a major influence on his compositional style, with its lush orchestrations, tense harmonies and sardonic colors. Unfortunately, his music was largely ignored in the USSR, where he was derided as “little Shostakovich”, despite his prolific output, which included twenty-two symphonies, seventeen string quartets, more than forty film scores and seven operas. His escape from harm at the hands of the Nazis was short lived, as members of his family were murdered by Stalin for “Jewish nationalism”. He only escaped execution because the dictator died while Weinberg, already in frail health, was waiting in prison for his death sentence.
The radio play The Passenger from Cabin Number 45 was written by journalist Zofia Posmysz, who survived Auschwitz and celebrated her ninetieth birthday last August. Her jobs in the supply room and kitchen and her bunk, which had a small window, saw her through three years in a situation where the average woman lived three months. She almost died of pneumonia twice, but was saved by the camp doctor. Years later, in the midst of a large crowd of people in the Champs-Elysées in Paris, she heard a voice that she took for her SS Overseer and had an episode of intense terror in which she was back at the camp. This inspired her play, which in turn inspired Weinberg’s opera. What is unusual about both is that the person experiencing psychosis is a former Nazi, the haunted SS Overseer Annaliese Franz. Some critics feel that sympathy for the pain of such a villain is inappropriate. This was a woman who tortured people and had them killed, who committed unthinkable crimes, the worst of which were the murders of Marta and her beloved Tadeusz. On the other hand, this was also a nineteen year old girl who was doing damage to her own psyche in the name of the Reich. Whether she repents or not, and she does not, she remains unforgivable, as the prisoners proclaim in the second act. She cannot escape judgement, even if the those around her do not recognize her crime. Is this judgement in her own mind, or is it from outside of herself?
The Passenger was scheduled to premiere in 1968, but the censors in Moscow banned it. The Bolshoi scheduled it several times over the next few decades, but it was not performed until 2006, and then only in an unstaged, concert version. Weinberg had been dead for ten years. In 2010, The Passenger premiered at the Bregenz Festival, the first fully staged performance of this controversial work. It is this production, directed by David Pountney with a terrific set by Johan Engels, that Houston Grand Opera is presenting this winter at the Wortham Center. We will take it to New York City this summer as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, performing it at the Park Avenue Armory. Performances are in English with subtitles.
The world of The Passenger is divided by Engels’s imaginative and impressive set. The upper levels are peopled by passengers and crew on the ship, while the stage floor, encircled by train tracks, is Auschwitz. Two large set pieces move along the tracks, one being the women’s barracks, something like a bookcase for people, into which female prisoners, principal singers and choristers alike, clamber and lie. From the top of these set pieces the male chorus looks down in horror at events below them in the camp. The result is effective and eerie. The clip below shows one of the most beautiful parts of The Passenger, which is neither easy listening nor easy viewing, although it is most certainly not devoid of beauty. This is the same production we are presenting, but a different cast and language.
Video via recitarcantando1 on YouTube.
As a chorus member, one of the female prisoners, I can tell you that this show isn’t comfortable to perform. There is no way it could be. Clambering around in the dark is one thing, and those barracks are not padded. But that isn’t really all that bad, a few bruises aside. What makes the show difficult is getting into the mentality of a prisoner, knowing that looking a guard in the eye, holding your head up, or expressing emotion of any kind could get you noticed. Getting noticed will bring pain and maybe even death. The physicality of a prisoner: holding the head down, the shoulders in, making yourself small, creates something of the emotional state of a prisoner, even if it is one percent or less of the horror those souls in Auschwitz endured. That is enough to keep you up at night after you get home. It’s worth it to be a part of something so powerful, but performing it requires a certain distance.
The Passenger is a work that asks many questions while providing no answers. It strives to show us what can happen when a nation allows the wrong people to imagine the future. That vision can be as deadly to the people it vows to protect as it is to its enemies. And yet, despite the evil of the camp, humanity has a way of showing through, a quality for which it is punished.
The Passenger runs January 18th through February 2nd in Houston and July 10th through 13th in New York City. Hope to see you there!