Tuesday 30 April 2013

Focus: 'The Passenger', Op. 97

Those who've experienced The Passenger know it to be intense but also heartfelt. It was Weinberg's first opera and it stands out amongst his works, with reasonable claim to being his 'masterpiece'.

Poster for the 2010 premiere of 'The Passenger', Bregenz Festival.

(Images & video links in the post are taken from the Bregenzer Festspiele production in 2010 unless otherwise noted - this production was recorded and has been released on DVD and Blu-ray by Neos).


The first thing to mark 'The Passenger' as striking is its subject matter: the opera is unique in its confrontation with the legacy of the Holocaust, and especially in its on-stage setting within Auschwitz itself (at least, partly - see below). Weinberg avoids crass illustration in his music, and instead opts for an intense humanism, communicating a great sincerity in his statements.
   Of course, commemorative works were not unusual in Weinberg's output before 'The Passenger'. Directly before it, he wrote his 'Requiem', Op. 96, another work which would wait many years before being performed. Before that, there are his Sixth and Eighth Symphonies, both of which use chorus to moving effect. In one sense, Weinberg viewed all of his music as commemorative. He had lost his entire family during the Holocaust–he had fled from Poland eastwards to the USSR, leaving them behind. This loss left him with an urgency to justify his survival–a creative urge.
   The story of 'The Passenger' started several years before Weinberg even encountered it, however, and to tell the tale of its conception, we must focus on a Polish author, Zofia Posmysz.

Zofia Posmysz camp photograph, Auschwitz.
Posmysz was 18 years old when she was arrested by the Nazi gestapo for accompanying an individual who was distributing political leaflets. She was sent to Auschwitz camp, where we was imprisoned for three years. During that time, she was witness to immeasurable cruelty and despair, but she also found hope. A young Polish officer by the name of Tadeusz risked his life to make her a medallion featuring Christ on the cross, a medallion which Posmysz wears to this day. During her incarceration, she nearly died from Typhoid, but she recovered and survived Auschwitz. 
   An incident in 1962 vividly returned her to life in the camp–and directly inspired the scenario that would go on to become 'The Passenger'. While visiting the Champs-Elysées in Paris, she overheard a group of German Tourists:

Suddenly I heard a voice. It was remarkably like the voice of our guard Frau Franz. Her voice always sounded so shrill… And now I could hear the same screams in the Place de la Concorde. I thought: ‘My God, it’s our prison guard!’ I looked in every direction and tried to find her but of course it wasn’t her. Even so, my heart missed a beat. And I thought: ‘If it had been her, what would I have done?’

 Posmsyz confronted her past, and wrote a radio play in 1959 called 'Passenger from cabin 45'. By 1962, this had expanded into a book, ' Pasażerka'. Alongside this, a film was produced with the same name, partly filmed in Auschwitz itself. (The film itself was never completed). 

 A clip from 'Pasażerka', dir. Andrzej Munk, 1963. Production was cut short by Munk's death in 1962, but the fragmentary film was released with audio commentary layered on top, transforming it into a pseudo-documentary.

The book enjoyed moderate success, and it came to the attention of no less a composer than Dmitri Shostakovich as a scenario for an opera. Shostakovich had avoided opera since the 1930s however, and he passed the project along to Weinberg. Weinberg worked with librettist Alexander Medvedev, beginning a long-term collaborative partnership. 
   Weinberg began work in 1967, and the opera was finished in June 1968. 'The Passenger' would have to wait many years to be heard, however. Shostakovich was a huge fan of the work, writing a preface to the published score, in which he says: '"The Passenger" is a unique work; I will never tire of hearing it'. The work encountered considerable difficulties, however. The work was scheduled to be produced at the Bolshoi theatre in 1968, but it was cancelled. In hindsight, it appears that the Soviet authorities were not keen on documents that did not focus on the plight of the Soviet people during the Second World War and the Holocaust. By the time of Weinberg's death in 1996, the work remained unheard, apart from a few renditions from the piano score, in private circles. Shortly before his death, Weinberg requested of Medvedev that if he ever heard the work performed, that he ought to listen twice, once for himself and once for Weinberg. 
    Following the resurgence of interest in Weinberg's music (mostly stemming from the Western world), a concert performance of the opera was given on 25th December, 2006 in Moscow. Tragically, Alexander Medvedev died just a few days before the performance. On the success of this, the full staged premiere was given at the Bregenz festival in 2010, under the leadership of English Director David Pountney. (Pountney has subsequently been awarded the Cavalier’s Cross of the Order of Merit by Poland, for services to Polish culture). Runs of the opera followed in London and Barcelona, and this year sees performances in Texas and Berlin. It appears that 'The Passenger' is finally receiving the attention it deserves.

Poster from the 2010 Warsaw production.


Following Posmysz's book, the action in the opera takes place between two very different locations with distinct time-zones.

a) - aboard a passenger-ferry, sailing to Brazil, c. mid 1960s.
b) - Auschwitz prison camp, c. 1943.

Alongside this, there is an on-stage chorus at key moments in the opera, who represent our modern consciousness. The chorus sing solemn commentaries on the action happening onstage.

The whole opera has been uploaded to youtube, filmed at the Bregenz premiere:

Below is a summary of the plot, scene by scene.

Act 1

Scene 1 : Walter and his wife Liese are on their way to a new life in Brazil where Walter will take up a diplomatic post. During the journey Liese is struck by the appearance of a passenger she sees indistinctly. The passenger reminds her of an inmate in Auschwitz over whom she once presided and knows for certain to be dead. In shock she reveals her hitherto undisclosed wartime past to her husband.
Scene 2 : In the concentration camp Liese and her superior Overseer discuss the need to manipulate prisoners and find one amongst each group who can be manipulated to lead the others easily. The male officers drink and sing about how there is nothing to do but how they are less likely to die than fighting on the front against the Russians.
Scene 3 : The women of the camp are introduced and each tells of their background and origins. A Russian woman is bought in having been beaten and tortured and the Kapo in charge discovers a note which may cost her her life. Marta is selected by Liese to translate to Liese but deliberately makes it out to be a love letter from her partner Tadeusz, with whom she arrived into incarceration, but has not seen these past two years. Liese believes the subterfuge. As the scene closes Liese and Walter are seen on the boat in the present time trying to come to terms with Liese's newly uncovered past.

Act 2

Scene 1 : Belongings of murdered prisoners are being sorted by the women when an officer arrives to demand a violin so that the Kommandant may have his favourite waltz rendered to him by a prisoner. The prisoner Tadeusz is sent to collect the violin and arrives to discover his fiancée Marta there. Their reunion is overseen by Liese who decides to try and manipulate their relationship so that she may more easily control Marta for her own purposes in more readily exerting control over all the women.
Scene 2: Tadeusz is in his prison workshop fashioning jewellery for the officers' private demands. In a pile of his sketches, Liese recognises the face of Marta. Liese tries to get Tadeusz to do her bidding also, but seeing that this would leave him indebted to Liese, he declines although essentially this will cost him his life now.
Scene 3 : It is Marta's birthday and she sings a lengthy aria to Death itself. Liese tells Marta that Tadeusz refused her offer and that it will cost him dear, but Marta understands Tadeusz's stance. The women sing more about what they will do when they return home after the war, although it is obvious to most that they will never return alive. There is a death-house selection, and the women are all led away as their numbers are called. Marta resignedly follows although she has not been selected for death. Liese stops her from joining the others and taunts her that her time will come shortly so there is no need to hurry. Liese's final taunt is that she will live to see Tadeusz's final concert before he is too sent to the death-house as a result of her report.

Scene 4 : In the present time on the boat, Walter and Liese are still unsure as to whether the mystery woman whose appearance has so upset Liese is really Marta. The porter Liese earlier bribed to discover the woman's identity only revealed that she was British. He now returns to add that although she is travelling on a British passport, she is not English and is on deck reading a Polish book. Walter offers to confront the mystery woman to set Liese's mind at rest before they both decide they are letting their minds run away with themselves. They both resolve to ascend to the salon to join the dancing. Liese dances whilst her husband talks to another passenger. The mystery woman is seen passing a play-request to the band leader. The band then play the same tune that was once the camp Kommandant's favourite waltz. This musical coincidence and the still unknown identity of the passenger further convinces Liese that Marta is somehow alive and on the boat. Liese is reduced to terror and shrinks from sight of the still unrevealed mystery passenger retreating from her backwards down the stairs of the liner into the horrors of Tadeusz's final moments.
Scene 5 : Tadeusz is dragged before the Kommandant to provide him with his favourite waltz music. Instead he plays Bach's "Chaconne" making a defiant purely musical protest at the Kommandant about the descent from culture into depravity the camp represents. Thus he deprives Liese of her plan to have him executed via her report and deprives the Kommandant of his illusion that he can force people to play him his favourite music under pain of death. Tadeusz seals his own fate and, his violin being smashed, he is dragged off to his death. All the while, Liese observes the scene whilst still in her ballgown.
Scene 6 : The stage becomes completely empty apart from Liese still in her ballgown who slumps down sitting to the rear silently. Marta enters. She is observed to be wearing non-prisoncamp clothing and with her hair unshaven. She sings that the dead should never be forgotten and they can never forgive. Liese can only observe, unable to have Marta change her attitude and provide her the closure she selfishly craves. The scene fades away musically as does the light and the opera ends very quietly in total darkness.

Weinberg's music throughout is astonishingly powerful. There are subtle influences from Berg's Wozzeck and Britten's operas, but, overall, Weinberg's style is highly personal. There are passages of jazz, 12-tone music, as well as long instances of solo singing, such as when a female prisoner sings a Russian folk song from her youth. (The whole opera was uploaded onto youtube–which would have provided excellent musical examples for this post. Sadly, it has now been removed.)
   If the opera is uploaded again, I shall edit this post to include numerous examples. Until then, here is a short promotional video, made for the 2011 London production:


    Zofia Posmysz is alive and well (she will be 90 years old on 23rd August this year). She attended the premiere performance in 2010 and received a standing ovation when she took to the stage. 

Zofia Posmysz, pictured in London, 2011.


UPDATE: November 2013

I am pleased to announce that The Passenger will be appearing in New York in summer 2014 - more details here. Furthermore, my article 'Weinberg and The Passenger' is to be published in a set of conference proceedings in the new year. When it is released, I will make it available to readers of this blog, one way or another. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. Daniel, for posting this enlightening moment of history for us all. It was also announced on PBS recently about how Weinberg "relentlessly" composed music to cope with and justify his existence after his family was killed, until his death in 1996. Powerful expatiating music, if I can use the word in this way.

    Arnie Gerstein