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Weinberg hoped to live long enough to see “The Passenger” performed, but he died in 1996, almost 15 years before the world premiere at Austria’s Bregenz Festival. Pountney had been investigating Weinberg’s work for years by this point. “Since the ’70s, I’d been asking: Who came after Shostakovich and Prokofiev? But of course it was very difficult to get information out of the Soviet Union.” Bit by bit he started hearing about Weinberg, and eventually he got a hold of several recordings of “The Passenger.” “As I began to listen to it,” he said, “I realized that Weinberg was a really serious composer.”
Weinberg adapted the story from a Polish radio play and novel by Zofia Posmysz, who spent three years as a prisoner in Auschwitz. More than a decade after surviving the camps, Posmysz — who is now 90 — was strolling through the Place de la Concorde when she thought she overheard the German voice of a former camp guard. It was this experience that inspired “The Passenger,” which is told from the guard’s point of view instead of the prisoner’s.
Pountney acknowledges the inherent difficulty of pulling off an opera on such a subject. “I’m a little equivocal about all these novels and plays coming out now about Auschwitz that really crank up the emotional temperature,” he said. But despite the lush, heavily orchestrated music, Weinberg and his librettist, Alexander Medvedev, avoided the usual pitfalls.
“It’s a very, very good opera, even if you’re not particularly moved by the subject of Auschwitz,” Pountney said. “Of course, one can’t ignore that Auschwitz carries a unique weight and emotional impact. Weinberg could still have gotten it wrong if there had been any sense of overemotional operatic grandstanding. The subtlety and restraint with which he handles the subject is just extraordinary.”
After its premiere in Bregenz, “The Passenger” was produced in Warsaw and London. The Houston performances run through February 2.
Since opera schedules are “between five and 10 years in the planning,” according to HGO’s managing director, Perryn Leech, HGO has had ample opportunity to organize local cultural and educational events surrounding the premiere. Through partnerships with the Holocaust Museum Houston and the Jewish Community Center of Houston, it has been presenting numerous “Passenger”-related events, such as lectures, salons and a screening of the unfinished 1963 Polish movie based on the same story.
“We want to educate the next generation of people whilst we still have Holocaust survivors among us,” Leech said, “and this great piece of art tells the story wonderfully. There aren’t many operas that allow you to open up conversations and have educational events.”
Laura Moser may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org