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Snatched from oblivion, post-Holocaust opera ‘The Passenger’ makes a rescue stop at Lyric

Submitted by on Feb 23, 2015 – 6:40 pm

A scene from Mieczyslaw Weinberg's 'The Passenger,' Lyric Opera Chicago 2015 (Robert Kusel)

Report: “The Passenger,” a late-blooming 1968 opera by the Polish-born Soviet composer Mieczysław Weinberg, will have its Chicago Lyric Opera premiere as part of a whirlwind of introduction in Austria, Poland, the U.S. and England. Director David Pountney and author Zofia Posmysz talk about why. 

By Nancy Malitz

A flyer in the daily mail was on its way to the trash basket when something caught the eye of David Pountney. The British opera and theater director was always on the prowl for interesting works to produce at the summer Bregenz Festival, in Austria, where he was artistic director.

The notice was from Peermusic, a small, family-run American firm best known for its affiliation with bluegrass, country and pop greats like The Carter FamilyHoagy Carmichael and Buddy Holly.

Soviet composers Dmitri Shostakovich and Mieczyslaw Weinberg were close colleagues and friendsBut Peermusic also had a classical department. “The leaflet mentioned an opera by this composer Weinberg, who was a friend of Shostakovich. It was literally halfway into the basket and I thought, ‘Wait a minute, what is this?'” recalls Pountney on a visit to Chicago, where the self-same opera by Mieczysław Weinberg — a riveting Holocaust-themed work written nearly 50 years ago — opens Feb. 24 at the Lyric Opera.

Pountney first introduced “The Passenger” in 2010 in Bregenz, a premiere belated by decades because the Soviet regime had suppressed its intended 1968 Bolshoi Opera debut and all subsequent attempts to bring it forth. Since then, “The Passenger” has been celebrated as a major rediscovery and Pountney’s production, designed by the late Johan Engels, has traveled to Warsaw, London, Houston and New York before landing at the Lyric for performances through March 15.

Pountney began his quest at a critical late stage when first-hand information was still obtainable: Although Weinberg had died in 1996, his widow was still alive, and so was Alexander Medvedev, who wrote the libretto. Medvedev is gone now, but among the distinguished guests attending the Chicago event is Zofia Posmysz, the 91-year-old former Auschwitz inmate and author of the novella on which the opera is based.

Zofia Posmysz, author of the novella 'The Passenger.' (wikia.net)Posmysz had been  invited to Moscow back in the ’60s to spend about a week in that golden span of time between the Bolshoi’s official commissioning of the work and the subsequent decision to suppress it. While “The Passenger” was still a go, she spent hours with both Medvedev and Weinberg, who was already well into composing the score. “He was a very introverted personality and a deep thinker, whose life did not liberate himself from his past,” she says. “He wanted to know what happened to me, presumably because it would be similar to the story of his parents.”

Weinberg, a Polish Jew, was 19 when the Germans invaded Warsaw and he fled east, the only member of his family to survive, eventually to spend his life in the Soviet Union. Click here to read his story in Chicago On the Aisle.

Posmysz, who is not Jewish, was 18 when she was accused of distributing subversive literature, jailed by the Gestapo in Kraków and sent to Auschwitz in 1942. She was eventually assigned to a kitchen and stockroom SS overseer, a woman in whom she glimpsed occasional humanity. When the Soviet army advanced in January 1945, she was herded into a forced march into Germany and liberated in May at a camp in Neustadt Glewe.

Zofia Posmysz shows Lyric Opera fans a necklace from Tadeusz Paulone, who was killed in 1943. One of her characters is named after him. (Todd Rosenberg)A love story between two Auschwitz inmates  is threaded through the novella and the Weinberg opera. “It’s partly my personal history,” Posmysz says of what happens to Marta and Tadeusz. “But you can’t think of us as lovers in the regular meaning of the word.” Seated in an armchair in a high-rise apartment a few blocks north of the Chicago River, she spoke with gentleness and specificity of her time in the camps.

“We saw each other only three times in our lives in the space of a few months, and then he wrote a few small letters to me, and I replied,” she says. “Our letters were smuggled because it was forbidden to communicate in this way and if they caught you, the punishment was severe. Actually, he inspired me with his will to survive, but on the other hand he said it is a place where you shall have no hope. He would tell me, ‘Don’t count on it that the war will end quickly and the West will give an ultimatum to Hitler and they will clear the concentration camps. Don’t count on that.’ They shot him in 1943. We knew each other only from June until September.”

After the war, Liese (Daveda Karanas, center) thinks she sees a woman whose death she caused, in 'The Passenger' at Chicago Lyric 2015. (Michael Brosilow)The opera’s story, which unfolds aboard a European ocean liner bound for Brazil shortly after the end of World War II., begins with a pair of newlyweds — a West German diplomat and his wife, Liese, who has a secret past unknown to him. Liese is deeply shaken by the sight of a fellow female passenger, who resembles a former Auschwitz inmate whose death she thought she caused while working as an SS overseer. Liese’s crisis of guilt and reckoning is riddled by flashbacks to the story of young Polish prisoner Marta and her fiancé Tadeusz, who played the violin. The Auschwitz scenes depict Marta in a cosmopolitan hell; the languages sung in this production will include Yiddish, Russian, Polish, French, English, German, Greek and Czech.

Posmysz herself experienced such a post-war flashback, although the situation was reversed: She was the traveler, vacationing in Paris while working for Polish radio, when she heard a voice from her Auschwitz past. It was her overseer, she thought, but she was mistaken, and the concept for a radio play was born.

“In 1959 my radio drama was broadcast and in 1960 there was a TV drama presented on Polish television,” Posmysz says. “And then my negotiations with film-maker Andrzej Munk started. He wanted me to expand the play into a movie script with him. I told him that I would need something to refer to, something I could base my work on, and he said, ‘Don’t worry, just write a short novella and we will turn it into a script.'”

Work on the film was interrupted when Munk died in a car accident. As his colleagues scrambled to make a film that showed the harrowing Auschwitz footage, shot with actors, juxtaposed with the freeze-frame effect of a slide show for all the ocean liner segments, Posmysz went to work expanding her own novella at the request of a publishing house. Her book was published in 1962 and by 1963 the film was ready. Even in its fractured state, Munk’s film was a powerful piece of work that won a 1964 prize at the Cannes International Film Festival.

Back in Moscow, Shostakovich became aware of Posmysz’s novella and tried to interest his friend Weinberg in it. Pountney picks up the thread: “The opera was not performed because it was deemed to be politically ill-advised, but Weinberg’s other music was played quite a lot. There was a very active musical life in the Soviet Union, and as long as you were not arrested there were lots of concerts and distinguished musicians who could play your work. The pianist Emil Gilels, the violinist David Oistrakh, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich all played Weinberg. Kirill Kondrashin conducted him. It’s therefore amazing that Weinberg could vanish from the radar as he did.”

Director David Pountney discovered Weinberg's 'The Passenger' because of a flyer sent to his mailbox.

But the Iron Curtain meant that it was difficult for music lovers in the West to find out what going on in Soviet Union. Pountney says he was always on the lookout for the next big composer, but except for Alfred Schnittke and Sofia Gubaidulina, who eventually came out of the woodwork, there just wasn’t much information. “You could never go into a shop over there and browse,” he says. “You had to know what to ask for before you could find it, so there is this gap regarding composers of that era.

“That’s why this piece of paper struck me when it came in the mail. What had happened with the Soviet Union’s collapse was that the big monopolistic music publishing houses were broken up and sold off to various western predators, and most of Weinberg’s stuff was bought up by the Sikorski publishing house, based in Hamburg. But Sikorski was very lazy about it and did really nothing. The music just sat there, and was forgotten, once again.

“Meanwhile, Peermusic set about promoting their little tranche of Soviet stuff, which happened to include a small amount of Weinberg. They had the materials for this opera, and they had a CD of a concert performance which took place in Moscow in 2006, on the tenth anniversary of Weinberg’s death. I was absolutely thrilled to hear it.”

Pountney sought out a translation of Medvedev’s libretto, which he was able to obtain in German, and he realized it was a brilliant piece of work that he was destined to bring to the Bregenz stage. “It’s a delicate thing, at a summer festival in Austria of all places, to think about programming a Holocaust opera, so it had to be extremely credible,” he says. “And it really, really was.”

But preparing the opera would involve a big effort. “As luck would have it,” Pountney recalls, “I was on my way to Moscow to do a production of ‘Carmen’ at the Bolshoi, and that gave me the chance to go and winkle out the aging members of the Soviet intelligentsia, although Weinberg was already dead by then.”

Pountney was able to visit Weinberg’s widow (his second wife, Olga Rakhalskaya) in Moscow. “Some of his music had lain around for 50 years,” he says. “She at that point still had a number of Weinberg scores just sitting in her cupboard. They had not been photographed or recorded and could easily have gone up in a fire.”

The great number of works Weinberg had composed included string quartets, symphonies, concertos and six other operas. “He was obviously a major composer,” says Pountney, “and as the only one in his family who survived the war, he must have thought he had to justify this. The music just poured out of him.”

In both Munk’s film and in Weinberg’s opera, there is a critical dramatic turning point that hangs on the music of Bach. In the movie, Marta and Tadeusz try to sneak closer to each other while the prisoners stand at attention, as a violinist inmate performs the Adagio movement of Bach’s E major Violin Concerto for camp officers. The camera zooms in on Marta’s face as the sound of a train engine gets louder and louder, and the irony of Bach’s sublime music accompanying the arrival of more doomed passengers is unavoidable. “When I saw the movie for the first time,” Posmysz says, “I thought, ‘My goodness, Munk was not an Auschwitz prisoner, how can he have made a film so close to getting it right?”

In the opera, Bach’s music marks a powerful dramatic shift for which Pountney gives Medvedev full credit. “He was a really smart guy, and it was he who had this idea that Tadeusz is ordered to play a trivial waltz, the commandant’s favorite, but instead he plays the Bach Chaconne.” Bach’s work is famously one of grief and catharsis; he wrote it shortly after the death of his first wife, a signal achievement in the history of German music. But Tadeusz’s performance was an act of resistance, and immediately understood as such.

Zofia Posmysz, age 18, upon induction at AuschwitzPosmysz says she never heard Bach in the camps, even among the musicians who were in the women’s orchestra led by Alma Rosé. She also says that the man she loved, on which the character of Tadeusz was based, was not a musician, but rather a former officer in the Polish armed forces who did bookkeeping in the male camp and was sent to the kitchen in the female camp to teach her. “When they showed that scene to me, I said the opera is governed by its own principles and I still believe that,” she says.

“But all we heard in the camps were marches and operetta numbers. And when I hear music today, it is not always a positive experience for me.” Certain waltzes by Johann Strauss send her thoughts straight back to the camp. “I turn off the radio when I hear them.”

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