“The Passenger” is an opera with a historical provenance almost as compelling as its libretto. Seventy years ago, the infamous prison camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by Allied Forces. The opera now being staged by Michigan Opera Theatre is the work of those who experienced its horrors and lost family in the Holocaust.
At the time of the German occupation of Poland, Mieczysław Weinberg, a piano prodigy and composer of Polish-Jewish descent, escaped on foot and made his way to Soviet Russia. The rest of his family perished in the Nazi death camps. In this same time frame, the Nazi’s arrested a young Polish woman named Zofia Posmysz for the crime of meeting with other Polish students to study at night. She later wrote a radio play and novel based on her experience at Auschwitz.
Some years later, Weinberg discovered Posmysz’s work and in 1968 made it the basis for a profoundly moving opera that was then suppressed for more than 40 years by the Soviet government. This opera, “The Passenger,” was eventually rediscovered and performed in concert, ten years after Weinberg’s death, in 1996. Then, in 2010, the Artistic Director of Austria’s Bregenzer Festspiele, David Pountney, directed a powerful, fully realized production of “The Passenger” with a fantastic set design by the late Johan Engels. The opera was subsequently performed in Poland, England, and Germany before making its way to the U.S. “The Passenger” received its American premiere in 2014 at Houston Grand Opera and then at the Lyric Opera of Chicago earlier this year. The MOT staging marks its third performance in this county.
Knowing the dark matter that this opera deals with, it’s superficial to suggest that patrons can “enjoy” this opera in the traditional sense. That said, the music, the voices, the staging and the unforgettable story combine to create an experience that is emotionally and aesthetically profound. With only three performances left, it’s important that everyone who can see it.
Already, “The Passenger” has had an influence in raising awareness for the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Michigan Opera Theatre has enjoyed participation from 62 distinct community groups throughout metro Detroit who have sought to educate people and engage them in discussions exploring different aspects of genocide and mans’ inhumanity to man. In a curtain speech before the opening night performance, Wayne S. Brown, President and CEO of Michigan Opera Theatre, said, “The combined power of all of these people is extraordinary. Art can unite. Music can make a difference; Opera can serve as a catalyst for productive dialogue. We honor our community partners who are joining us on this journey with ‘The Passenger.’” To extend community involvement, opera patrons are invited to bring canned goods, which will be distributed to local food banks.
“The Passenger” is a huge production by any standards and it merits our attention. The colossal set is the largest in MOT history, literally extending back beyond the normal staging area into its storage space. The cast features 16 principal singers plus 50 chorus members, many of whom remain on stage throughout the show; they act as a sort of Greek Chorus that comments on the action, informed by a “modern,” historical perspective.
The opera begins on the top deck of a sparkling white ocean liner where a West German diplomat, Walter, and his wife Liese, are bound for a new assignment in Brazil. When Liese observes a mysterious, veiled woman on the ship, she is becomes terrified and eventually makes a horrific confession to Walter. As a young woman, Liese served as an SS officer – an “overseer” – in Auschwitz. Liese believes the veiled woman is one of the inmates, Marta, who can expose Liese to a war tribunal and undo Walter’s career and all future happiness. Walter insists that Liese tell him the full story. As Liese relates her version of Auschwitz, the lower portion of the set is ominously transformed into the death camp. Set pieces literally rumble into place on the railway lines that delivered so many people to their final destination. Liese insists that she was just doing her duty as a German patriot, but goaded on by the Chorus, we begin to hear the voices of women prisoners and meet young Marta, who seeks to comfort new arrivals. Marta’s grace and kindness help her hold onto her humanity despite the horrors that surround her.
Appropriately, the opera is sung in seven languages – Russian, German, Polish, French, Yiddish, Czech, and English – the languages of the people interred at the camp as well as those mingling above on the cruise liner. English supertitles are projected above the stage, so everyone can follow the story as it is revealed through the haunting music. There’s no easy way to characterize Weinberg’s music. The Overture is percussive with the gunfire and explosions of WWII. The vocal music reflects its subject matter, at times harsh and unforgiving – but contrasted with meditative and even sweet melodies. One of the most touching moments is when a Russian girl sings Marta a sad folksong from her homeland – a snatch of something her Grandmother used to sing.
Surprisingly, the music is never bombastic or self-righteous. The characters do ask that we never forget the kind of inhumanity that happened in the death camps, and never forget the stories of those who died so senselessly. When current events remind us every day that people are willing to embrace dogmas that not only justify but glorify inhumane acts, we cannot afford to forget. Marta’s final admonition is, “Do not forget them, never ever!” We leave willing to take her message to heart.
This cast includes an embarrassment of gifted singers and actors: Daveda Karanas (Liese), Adrienn Miksch (Marta), David Danholt (Walter), Anna Gorbachyova (Katya), Liubov Sokolova (Bronka), Marian Pop (Tadeusz), Angela Theis (Yvette), Ashley Maria Bahri Kashat (Krystyna), Kristin Eder (Vlasta), Courtney Miller (Hannah), Jeff Byrnes (1st SS Officer), Lauren Skuce (Old Woman/Alta), Brent Michael Smith (2nd SS Officer), Joseph Michael Brent (3rd SS Officer), Stephen Lusmann (Older passenger, steward and commandant), and Geraldine Dulex (Kapo/Overseer). Complete synopsis and casting information is available on the MOT website.
“The Passenger” is directed by revival director Rob Kearley, who carefully staged this MOT show in the spirit of the original production. Kearley worked closely with David Poutney, the opera’s original director, and both men were in attendance at the opening night performance. Kearley graciously gave the pre-show lecture in person, which was a treat for the many patrons in attendance. “The Passenger” is a coproduction of Bregenzer Festspiele, Austria, Teatr Wielki Opera Narodowa Warzawa, and English National Opera ENO. Original designers include set designer Johan Engels, costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca, and lighting designer Fabrice Kebour. MOT favorite Steven Mercurio, who most recently conducted MOT’s spring production of “Faust,” conducts.
There are only three more performances of this amazing opera: Wednesday, November 18 and Saturday, November 21 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, November 22, at 2:30 p.m. Access tickets for students and young professionals, ages 18-40, are available for the Wednesday performance at a reduced price, with a special reception following the performance. A free opera talk begins one hour prior to each show. Ticket prices range from $29 to $149 and may be purchased online, by calling (313) 237-7464, or in person at the Detroit Opera House, which is located at 1526 Broadway, in Detroit. Tickets are also available through any Ticketmaster outlet.