Catherine Ashmore/Courtesy of the English National Opera
The Passenger is staged to juxtapose Auschwitz during the Holocaust — on the lower stage — with a chance encounter on the upper level years later.
A woman named Liese, who had been an SS guard at Auschwitz years before, is on a ship to Brazil with her much older diplomat husband, a man unaware of her past. She spots a fellow passenger she thinks she recognizes: an inmate of hers she thought had died.
Music aficionados have been hailing a lost Soviet-era opera — the plot of which turns on that very moment — as a forgotten masterpiece. The opera has its genesis in the real-life experience of Zofia Posmysz, a Polish Catholic sent to Auschwitz after she was caught reading an anti-Nazi leaflet. Posmysz wrote the novel on which the libretto for The Passenger was based.
Mieczyslaw Weinberg composed the opera, which is set in part in Auschwitz, in 1968, but Soviet authorities wouldn't allow it to be performed. The Passenger lay undiscovered for four decades — until now. It's being staged at the English National Opera in London.
The true story goes as follows: For three years, Posmysz worked as a clerk in the kitchens under an SS overseer who, though part of the killing machine, treated her fairly.
"She was always making sure that I was wearing clean clothes and clean laundry," Posmysz says. "Lice and fleas were very common, and so I think she did it for her own comfort, as well."
An Imagined Encounter
After the war, many of the guards at Auschwitz were tried for their crimes. Posmysz's overseer was not among them.
And then, one day in 1959, Posmysz was in Paris: "And suddenly I heard a voice saying in German: 'Erika, come here, we have to go.' And that voice was the high-pitched voice of my overseer from Auschwitz."
Posmysz whirled around: It was a stranger. But it got her thinking, she says, "What I would do or how I would behave if that was she? Would I call the police, or would I approach her and say hello? That's how the idea of the story began."
In her novel, Posmysz moved the encounter to a ship, she says, so that the woman wouldn't be able to run away.
Half a century later, London operagoers are settling in for an experience that was denied the opera's composer. Weinberg never saw The Passenger performed. Despite the support of his mentor and fellow composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, the authorities in Moscow apparently shied away from The Passenger's theme of Jewish suffering.
The set, and the action, are divided in two: an upper level, all in white, representing the deck of the ship, with white-clad passengers preparing for a dance; and, below, a dark underworld that is Auschwitz. Female prisoners with shaved heads move in darkness through sulfurous pools of light, as SS officers call out the numbers of those who are to die. Watching over both worlds is a chorus in modern dress — the present moment witnessing and judging these dramas from the past.
In the ship scenes, Liese and her husband grapple with the revelation of her past and its impact on their marriage and his career. They move from horror to self-justification and, finally, to the decision to try to brazen it out if the mystery passenger tries to confront them. In the Auschwitz scenes, we see SS guard Liese toying with a strong-willed Polish prisoner called Marta.
David Pountney is the director who rediscovered The Passenger — and, he says, deliberately staged its world premiere in Austria last year. He says he knew from the beginning that an opera set in Auschwitz was certain to set off warning bells about taste and appropriateness.
"I had to be very sure this was going to turn out to be a very good work," Pountney says. "Because you can't engage with that subject except at the highest level of artistic integrity — that this piece definitely has."
The English National Opera production has been playing to packed houses. Pountney says he hopes it will contribute to the rediscovery of Mieczyslaw Weinberg himself.
Weinberg was the only one in his family who got out of Poland in time. In postwar Moscow, he became a decorated composer, seen in the same rank as Prokofiev and Shostakovich. He created a vast body of work, of which The Passenger was considered his masterpiece. Friends say that enormous output sprang from an obsessive need to justify his own survival to his murdered parents and sister.
Weinberg died in 1996, but novelist Posmysz, now 88, was at the London opening of The Passenger. She says she felt no release watching her captor meet justice in art, if not in life.
"All these people, they still have power over us," she says. "We can't get out of this; we can't set ourselves free. Our oppressors are present in our lives exactly the same as our heroes. We just can't throw them out of our lives."