Rescued Auschwitz Opera 'The Passenger' Gets Long-Awaited Premiere in Houston

Masterwork of Mieczyslaw Weinberg Buried by Soviets

Horror Show: ‘The Passenger’ takes place in part on board a ship where a former Nazi officer recognizes a prisoner from Auschwitz.
catherine ashmore
Horror Show: ‘The Passenger’ takes place in part on board a ship where a former Nazi officer recognizes a prisoner from Auschwitz.

By Laura Moser

Published January 17, 2014, issue of January 24, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

For nearly half a century, “The Passenger,” a gripping opera set in Auschwitz, lay dormant. Commissioned by the Bolshoi Theatre in the former Soviet Union, it was supposed to receive its premiere in 1968, but that never happened.

“Soviet authorities didn’t think a piece about Jews would further the interests of the communist state,” said David Pountney, the acclaimed British director who rediscovered the work. “‘The Passenger’ was, for all practical purposes, banned there.”

Now, on January 18, at Texas’s Houston Grand Opera, the opera, considered to be the masterwork of composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg, will finally receive its American premiere.

“The Passenger” takes place in the 1950s on a cruise ship, where one woman — a former SS guard at Auschwitz who has hidden her past from her new husband — is certain that she recognizes a prisoner she thought had perished at the camp. The story alternates between the present-day drama of conscience and flashbacks to the guard and prisoner’s complex relationship at Auschwitz. A two-level set (ship on top, camp on bottom) emphasizes the interconnectedness of these two otherwise disparate settings.

“These women were both 19, and they should’ve met in a university canteen and had a row about a boyfriend,” Pountney said. “The difference is that this university was Auschwitz. It is an extraordinary relationship that the opera explores in an intelligent, sensitive way.”

The opera — which was not performed until 2010 — has a story that seems almost as compelling as any theatrical plot. Weinberg “was himself a passenger of the 20th century,” said Pountney, who directed the opera’s 2010 premiere in Austria and is bringing it to Houston. This summer, the week of July 10, it will have three performances as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.

Weinberg was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1919. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Weinberg, then a 19-year-old music student, fled Poland for the Soviet Union on foot. The only member of his family to survive the Holocaust, Weinberg landed briefly in Minsk and then, with the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, was evacuated, along with other artists, to Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

In Tashkent, Weinberg met and married the daughter of Solomon Mikhoels, a famous Soviet Jewish actor and the director of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater. His close friend Marc Chagall painted murals for the theater’s interior. With the help of Mikhoels’s and Weinberg’s new booster, Dmitri Shostakovich, Weinberg and his wife moved to Moscow in 1943. But when his father in-law was assassinated on Stalin’s orders in 1948, Weinberg’s position in the Soviet Union became more tenuous. He was imprisoned briefly in 1953, and though he continued writing music, he received no support from the state.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.