Thursday 3 July 2014

Wading in...

A lot of my writing on Weinberg's opera The Passenger has focused on critical reception, including my blog-article here and my colloquium article 'Weinberg and The Passenger', to be found on my page here. Over the years that I have spent researching Weinberg's life and music, I have paid particular attention to the reception of The Passenger, being arguably his best, and (potentially) most controversial work. The Russian premiere in 2006 heralded Weinberg as 'a new direction for Russian opera', while David Pountney's Bregenz production in 2010 drew rave reviews across the board (the London reception, however, was noticeably mixed). Eyebrows were raised at the question of 'appropriateness' of the material, while others were quick to react to some author's labelling of the work as a 'masterpiece'.
   The American premiere in Houston in January of this year attracted a similar mix of reactions, though predominantly more positive. Thursday 10th July sees the New York premiere, at Park Avenue Armory. Before the opera has even opened, it appears to have divided critics, both freelance and online commentators. Some of this writing begins with an outright angry tone before moving to vitriol, and I couldn't avoid throwing my two cents into the debate (hence my choice of title, 'Wading in...').

The initial reactions appear to be based upon Park Avenue Armory's publicity for the opera, in particular, the loaded phrase 'Holocaust opera' (a phrase itself lifted from out of John Allison's 2011 review for the Daily Telegraph, link). The Park Avenue Armory landing page for the production grandly sells the 'landmark work' link, while their assistant artistic director Mena Mark Hanna produced an enthusiastic programme note, released on Huffington Post:  (full link here)
'Mieczysław Weinberg's The Passenger... stands apart in its bold attempt to reenact the savagery of World War II on the musical stage. The Polish composer and his Russian librettist, Alexander Medvedev, produced an opera that not only seeks to write poetry after Auschwitz, but also attempts to confront the grotesque terror head-on. This opera is unlike any other work.'
Against this background of enthusiastic plugging for an upcoming production, I stumbled across the following article by Allan M. Jalon, writing for Tablet magazine, with the headline 'Lincoln Center presents an opera without Jews, set in Auschwitz' (full link). Jalon takes issue with the 'Holocaust opera' phrase used in various parts of the production's promotion materials to launch a thorough attack against the opera and its creators. Jalon's argument is set out in the opening paragraph:
'Beyond a few lines given to a Jewish character, there’s no explicit Jewish presence in this concentration camp. Seeing the work, it’s hard to believe: An opera set in the killing factory known for subtracting Jews from the world, and it subtracts Jews.'
Jalon, of course, is right to point this out. And, for Western audiences unfamiliar with the conditions of Soviet life, this must come as a shock. All credit to Jalon, he has thoroughly researched the work, and is right to point out the near-minimal representation of the Jewish people in The Passenger. Jalon raises the wide-reaching questions, ones that The Passenger cannot answer on its own:
'Can art that excises the full picture of the Nazis’ main group of victims be respected as a work of responsible witness? Are there no limits to art’s freedom to navigate a subjective path through its subject, when that subject is documented history?'
I strongly advise my readers to read Jalon's article in its entirety, for it presents a consistently adverse reaction to the opera, however well-researched it may be. Where I take strong issue is on two points: among Jalon's research, he interviewed Zofia Posmysz, author of the original book of The Passenger. Posmysz is now 91. Jalon's issue with the lack of Jewish representation of the novel is unleashed upon her during this interview:

Both the interviewer for OSTEUROPA and I asked Posmysz about the general absence of Jews in the various versions of her Aufseherin Franz-Marta-Tadeusz story. “In your story, Jews just aren’t there,” the German interviewer says pointedly. He or she—I couldn’t find a byline—notes the scene with the Jewish baby in the barracks but presses about why “both protagonists in the camp are stereotypical Poles: Tadeusz and Marta.”
The characters in the novel, she added in the German interview, were based on “the people whom I was closest to in the camp. I was very closely bound to Marta and Tadeusz. That was my experience... Auschwitz was a horrible experience for mankind. I don’t deny that the Jews were treated the worst, but many other people were sent to the gas chambers. Think of the Romani.”
In Posmysz’s email to me, she stresses that “the only thing I have the right to speak of” was the women’s camp, adding: “From the perspective of a prisoner, Auschwitz was limited to the barracks, the work brigade, to a cell in a bunker. People lived in small groups, going back and forth between barracks was unsafe.” Writing her novel, she says, she “presented the environment I knew best.”
Following this cornering by interview, Jalon goes on to mention Prof. Fanning's work on Weinberg's biography, detailing Weinberg's religious beliefs (or lack thereof) which, when combined with his attack on the non-Jewish perspective of The Passenger amounts to a crude attack on Weinberg himself:
'Fanning talks at length about the amount of music Weinberg wrote with Jewish content: symphonies and vocal work. After The Passenger, he made an opera based on “Mazel Tov,” a comic tale by Sholem Aleichem. It finally premiered in 1983. He apparently gave no indication of a commitment to Judaism as a faith, engaged as he was with Jewish culture. Meanwhile, he converted to the Russian Orthodox faith of his second wife shortly before he died, at 76, in 1996, though Fanning says his reason for his conversion remains unclear.'
 Jalon's biting article prompted me to wade into the murky territory of online commenting on the article. I reproduce my response here in full:
I worry that your article is a 'simple response' to Weinberg's opera. The Passenger's success lies in its subtlety. The opera does not need to overstate the almost exclusively Jewish-targeted nature of the Holocaust; that is a fact of history. As a work of stage-drama, literal depiction of atrocities is at best inappropriate, and at worst, offensive. Your article appears to be demanding that The Passenger would only be successful if it focused on explicitly depicting Jewish-directed Nazi cruelty, rather than the more subtle multicultural representation seen in the opera.
It is true that The Passenger does not portray an exclusively Jewish experience; there are many circumstances around its creation that influenced this fact. As you rightly pointed out, Posmysz's background as a Catholic informed the viewpoint that she imparted in her book (could she have done anything but that, a narrative on her own experiences?). Your rather subtle attack on Weinberg's absence of practicing faith risks becoming a personal swipe on the composer himself, rather than the opera. Weinberg's situation in the Soviet Union strongly influenced any chance of portraying a Jewish experience. Many of his works do reflect his Jewish heritage, but they only do so explicitly into the late 1970s and after. Before then, Weinberg made occasional use of Jewish melodies and some Jewish texts (texts which were often altered afterwards, increasing the chances of publication in the antisemitic Soviet state).
Weinberg had experienced Soviet antisemitism first-hand, having been arrested in 1953, and having had his Father-in-Law (Solomon Mikhoels) murdered by Stalin in 1948. Weinberg had witnessed other composers, such as Alexander Weprik, being arrested on charges of Jewish nationalism and being imprisoned for years - Weinberg was lucky to have gotten away with only a few months imprisonment. The chances of being sent to the Gulag in the late 1960s when Weinberg was writing The Passenger were still relatively high. It is understandable that he downplayed an exclusively Jewish identity - if not to avoid suspicion, but also to increase the chances of it being performed.
The multi-cultural viewpoint expressed through the opera represents the multi-national team that produced it. Weinberg alone held strong associations with Jewish, Polish and Russian identities. The fact Weinberg had lost his close family to the Holocaust is a rather crucial point of his biography, contributing to the emotional power of The Passenger - a fact that you only casually mention until the end of your article. It stands to reason that if Weinberg had portrayed a strongly Jewish viewpoint in the opera, he would have been effectively portraying the deaths of his family on stage. By avoiding this, and opting for a more subtle multinational perspective is, in my opinion, no flaw whatsoever. 

Of course, Jalon's thoughts were based on well-documented research, and his article is commendable on this point. However, monitoring the subsequent comments, other reader's thoughts on Jalon's article and The Passenger proved shocking. I shall quote these online comments below (though I will not credit their authors).
'...taking jews out of the production is just a big lie. The many Holocaust deniers in the world will use this as proof that Jews were not special victims of Nazi germany [sic].'
A rather amazing assumption, that Holocaust deniers would rely on a fictional work to get their 'proof'. While Holocaust denial is obviously an extremely serious issue, some of the rhetoric around the debate has lurched into fear of the denial itself in an effort to limit antisemitism in those territories at the frontline of an ongoing battle (in a very real sense). This stance echoes the Met's recent decision on John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer (where a broadcast was abandoned, on the grounds that the opera, while judged not to be antisemitic, could 'encourage' antisemitism elsewhere - see link here). In the 'Comments' box at the end of Jalon's article, one member of the public wrote:
'The opera is a lie and should be protested and boycotted. it attempts to supplant the tragedy of european Jews and make believe that it was chiefly gentiles that were the victims. this is a lie.'
Another gave the same thoughts in a slightly more eloquent summing up:
'Making the opera multinational would not have been a flaw - others suffered at the hands of the Nazis as well - but limiting the portrayal of the Jewish experience to one character is a huge flaw. Perhaps Mieczyslaw Weinberg was comfortable with this portrayal at the time and in the place in which he lived but to describe this as a Holocaust opera definitely seems to be a misrepresentation. Removing or minimizing the uniquely Jewish experience of the Holocaust is just one form of Holocaust denial.' 
These are by far the most extreme reactions to The Passenger so far; accusations of antisemitism and even Holocaust denial. I anticipate that my responses to such reactions will stimulate lively debate.


For any readers interested, I shall be speaking at the conference 'Continuities and Ruptures: Artistic Responses to Jewish Migration, Internment and Exile in the Long Twentieth Century', on Tuesday 8 July, with a paper titled 'Commemorating the Past: Weinberg's experience as a Jewish migrant in the USSR' (Conference programme link). The full conference will be streamed for the general public to watch online (I shall provide a link soon), and hopefully to be watched back again the future. My talk will be at 9:30am (British time). I hope that several of the opinions that I have outlined above will start a stimulating discussion.

'The Passenger', in David Pountney's production at the Bregenz festival, 2010.


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