In rescued opera, a Holocaust tale unfolds on two levels

February 9, 2014

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 received 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's Houston run ended Sunday. The same production moves to New York City in June. 

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