Synopsis - The Passenger
Like Nicholas Maw's Sophie's Choice, Mieczysław Weinberg's The Passenger achieves the almost impossible task of bringing a compelling Holocaust story to the operatic stage in a way which avoids the mawkish, the prurient and the sentimental.
Walter and Lisa Kretschmer are on board ship, sailing for Brazil. Lisa is shocked to discover that a fellow passenger is a woman from the past she has concealed from her husband - as a guard at the Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz. The bulk of the opera's scenes are in flashback: the woman is Martha, a Polish 'trusty' among the prisoners, who harbours a secret fiancé, the violinist Tadeusz. The Auschwitz story-line canvasses, in an entirely personal way, the themes of moral duty, the exercise of power over the weak and vulnerable, love, betrayal, endurance and resignation, as they impact on Lisa, Martha and Tadeusz.
Lisa is jerked back to the present as a ball scene aboard ship recalls a fateful moment back in the camp when Tadeusz defies the Commandant's call to play a sentimental waltz, by playing a Bach chaconne instead, and suffers the consequences. The opera ends not with Lisa, but with Martha, the reluctant survivor.
Warsaw-born Mieczysław Weinberg escaped the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 (although his family were all murdered) only to suffer from Soviet anti-Semitism for much of his life. In 1948 his father-in-law, a leading Jewish actor, was killed on Stalin’s orders; five years later Weinberg was imprisoned for ‘bourgeois Jewish nationalism’, although he was released after Stalin’s death. Now widely regarded as ‘the third man of Soviet music’ – after Shostakovich, his friend and mentor, and Prokofiev – Weinberg, like them, had many of his pieces banned and, though he deliberately reduced the Jewish references in his Holocaust opera The Passenger, it was never staged in Russia in his lifetime.
IN HIS OWN WORDS
‘I am a pupil of Shostakovich. Although I never had lessons with him, I count myself as his pupil, his flesh and blood.’
‘Many of my works are related to the theme of war. This, alas, was not my own choice. It was dictated by my fate, by the tragic fate of my relatives. I regard it as my moral duty to write about the war, about the horrors that befell mankind in our century.’
THE SURVIVOR’S STORY
Arrested for leafleting for the Polish resistance, the 18-year-old Zofia Posmysz spent three years in Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps. After the war she became a noted journalist and author. Unique in its portrayal of concentration camp life from the perspective of the perpetrators as well as the victims, her 1962 novel The Passenger has been adapted for radio, television, theatre and film, as well as for Weinberg’s opera. When the 86-year-old Zofia appeared on stage after last year’s Bregenz Festival premiere, the audience rose to its feet. It’s hoped that she will attend ENO’s production too.
‘In Auschwitz I met people who, I have no doubt, were saints. I believe that it is the only subject that is still worth my writing about.’
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