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Holocaust Opera Makes Its U.S. Premiere In Texas

Lynne Lane
Weinberg's The Passenger, Houston Grand Opera
l - r , Michelle Breedt, singing Liese, Melody Moore, Marta, Morgan Smith, Tadic

A rare opera about the Holocaust written nearly half a century ago just received its U.S. premiere in Texas. The Houston Grand Opera is presenting The Passenger, based on a story by a Holocaust survivor, with music from a composer who lost his entire family in Nazi death camps.

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.

“What is the matter my darling?” sings her husband.

Liese: See that woman there?

Walter: Why should she make you nervous?

Lies: There’s something strange about her manner. Unearthly. 

Walter: Not really. Middle aged. Her thoughts are far away. Is something wrong Lieschen?           

Liese has kept her Nazi past a secret. Ship scenes unfold on the all-white upper deck, while Auschwitz sequences take place 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 Furor.”

'Unrelentingly dark'

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,” Pountney said. “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 it a perfect masterpiece.

Pountney first presented The Passenger in 2010 to Austrian audiences, then took it to London, now Houston. Patrick Summers, the 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.”

Begging us to remember

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.

“And suddenly everything stops,” explains Moore, about what’s happening on stage. “Literally, the music. There are two spotlights. Everything is down to a pinpoint.”

Smith adds: “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 is beaten, and dragged away, his violin 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.

“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.

The Houston Grand Opera presents The Passenger tonight and Sunday. Then it takes the production to New York in June. 

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.