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
  • Multi 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.

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 feedback@forward.com


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!
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • 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.