A Holocaust Tale Unfolds On Two Levels

Feb 1, 2014
Originally published on February 1, 2014 9:00 pm

Composer Dmitri Shostakovich called it a perfect masterpiece without ever having seen it performed. The Passenger, an opera about the Holocaust, was written nearly half a century ago, but was only given its first full performance just three years ago.

Now it's getting its U.S. premiere at the Houston Grand Opera. The opera is based on a story by a Holocaust survivor, with music by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a composer who lost his entire family in the Nazi death camps.

Writer Zofia Posmysz, an Auschwitz survivor, was in Paris in 1959 when she feared she heard her former Nazi prison guard nearby. She was wrong. But that seed became this story, wherein her experience is reversed: On a 1950s cruise ship, a passenger — a former guard — thinks she sees her former prisoner.

The husband knows nothing of his wife's Nazi past. Scenes on the ship unfold on the white upper deck, Auschwitz sequences play out in the shadowy lower deck of the prison hell, where the same scene shifts back in time.

Polish-born Weinberg wrote The Passenger in 1967. The young Jewish musician escaped Warsaw in 1939 and settled in Moscow, where he studied with Shostakovich. He wrote incessantly. David Pountney, who directs the Houston production of The Passenger, says Weinberg composed 22 symphonies, 17 string quartets, ballets, film scores and seven operas.

"He was primarily writing to justify his survival," Pountney says. "I'm sure that's why he wrote such a massive amount of music. He never stopped, [as if to say] 'I've been saved. I'm the only one who survived. I have to use every minute to justify that.'"

Weinberg considered The Passenger his masterpiece. But a 1968 premiere was scrapped. Weinberg couldn't get anyone to produce it. Then, after the Soviet Union's collapse, music publishers in need of money began offering their works abroad. Pountney says they sent out leaflets describing pieces he'd never heard of.

"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?'" Pountney seized the opportunity and first presented a full production in 2010.

"We premiered it in Austria, so we're kind of performing it to grandchildren of perpetrators," he says. "And some of the grandchildren of the victims, of course."

Posmysz was in the audience, but Weinberg died in 1996 and never saw the work performed. Pountney contacted Patrick Summers, Houston Grand Opera's music director and conductor. The two had worked together before, and Summers agreed to stage the work even though it's not easy on audiences.

"It's unrelentingly dark," Summers says. "There's no point in trying to pretend it isn't."

The opera offers little relief, but it does what art's supposed to do, Summers says. It changes the way we see things and provides no easy answers.

"It asks us as an audience one thing," He says. "It just asks us, begs us, to remember."

The Passenger is performed Sunday. The same production moves to New York City in June.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Dmitri Shostakovich called the opera "The Passenger" a perfect masterpiece. It was written by one of his students nearly half a century ago and it's finally getting its U.S. premiere at the Houston Grand Opera. Bill Zeeble of member station KERA reports that the opera is based on a story by a holocaust survivor and it has music from a composer who lost his entire family in the Nazi death camps.

BILL ZEEBLE, BYLINE: Writer Zofia Posmysz, an Auschwitz survivor, was in Paris in 1959 when she feared she heard her former Nazi prison guard. She was wrong. But that seed became this story. A 1950s cruise line passenger, the guard, thinks she sees her former prisoner.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE PASSENGER")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Walter) (Singing) My darling, what is the matter?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as Liese) (Singing) See that woman there?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Why should she make you nervous?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing) There's something strange about her manner. Unearthly.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Not really. She is middle aged. Her thoughts are far away. Is something's wrong?

ZEEBLE: The husband knows nothing of his wife's Nazi past. Ship scenes unfold on the white upper deck, Auschwitz sequences play out in the shadowy lower deck of the prison hell where the same scene shifts back in time.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE PASSENGER")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (as character) Is something wrong Aufseherin Franz? Why hesitate? That's not like you. Remember, you are serving the Fatherland and the Fuhrer.

ZEEBLE: "The Passenger" was written in1967 By Polish-born Mieczyslaw Weinberg. The young Jewish musician escaped Warsaw in 1939 and settled in Moscow, where he studied with Shostakovich. Weinberg wrote incessantly. "The Passenger's" director, David Pountney, says Weinberg composed 22 symphonies, 17 string quartets, ballets, film scores, seven operas.

DAVID POUNTNEY: Relentless. He never stopped. He was primarily writing to justify his survival. I'm sure that's why he wrote such a massive amount of music. I've been saved. I'm the only one who survived. I have to use every minute to justify that.

ZEEBLE: Weinberg considered "The Passenger" his masterpiece, but a 1968 premiere was scrapped. Weinberg couldn't get anyone to produce it. Then, after the Soviet Union's collapse, music publishers in need of money began offering their works abroad.

POUNTNEY: And they sent around leaflets basically saying, you know, Composer Weinberg - who I had never heard of - friend of Shostakovich, opera about Auschwitz. It was one of those bits of paper that's on its way into the wastepaper basket and luckily in this case I just said, wait a minute, what? Friend of Shostakovich? Auschwitz? What is this?

ZEEBLE: Pountney seized the opportunity and first presented a full production in 2010.

POUNTNEY: We premiered it in Austria so we're performing it to grandchildren of perpetrators. And some of the grandchildren of the victims, of course.

ZEEBLE: Writer Zofia Posmysz was in the audience. But Mieczyslaw Weinberg died in 1996 and never saw the work performed. Pountney contacted Patrick Summers, The Houston Grand Opera's music director and conductor. The two had worked together before, and Summers agreed to stage the work even though it's not easy on audiences.

PATRICK SUMMERS: It is unrelentingly dark. There's no point in trying to pretend it isn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZEEBLE: Composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg wrote percussive, disjointed music for the below deck prison scenes, jazzy sequences above deck, and spare, lyrical vocal passages to get the audience's attention, says soprano Melody Moore. She and baritone Morgan Smith say that's exactly what happens when their two characters meet as prisoners in the camp.

MELODY MOORE: And suddenly everything stops - literally everything. There are two spotlights. Everything is down to a pinpoint.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE PASSENGER")

MOORE: (as character) You're alive?

MORGAN SMITH: (as character) You're alive?

MOORE: (as character) You're alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOORE: (Singing) Wait for (unintelligible) every heart, every (unintelligible)...

SMITH: (Singing) (unintelligible) alive...

They had no idea they were going to see each other. They were just grateful for those few minutes together.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE PASSENGER")

SMITH: (as character) (Singing) (unintelligible) alive...

ZEEBLE: The happy reunion is short lived. As the flashback continues, Smith's character, a violinist, is ordered to the play a German waltz for the commandant. He refuses. The Houston Grand Opera's Patrick Summers says the opera offers little relief, but does what art's supposed to do - it changes the way we see things.

SUMMERS: We've been rehearsing this since two weeks before Christmas. 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.

ZEEBLE: Summers says there's no moral. There are no easy answers.

SUMMERS: It asks us as an audience one thing. It just asks us, begs us, to remember.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE PASSENGER")

MOORE: (as character) (Singing) If one thing (unintelligible)...

ZEEBLE: "The Passenger" is performed tomorrow afternoon. The same production moves to New York City in June. For NPR News, I'm Bill Zeeble.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE PASSENGER")

MOORE: (as character) (Singing) I swear, I swear I will never, I will never forget...

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Our theme music was written by BJ Leiderman. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.