Opera aficionados are hailing a lost masterpiece now on stage at the English National Theatre in London. "The Passenger" was written more than four decades ago by Mieczyslaw Weinberg. He lived in Moscow, and Soviet authorities would not allow his opera to be performed. It's the story of a former guard at the Auschwitz death camp who encounters one of her former prisoners on a ship crossing the Atlantic.

As we hear from Vicki Barker, there's a compelling back-story to the opera as well.

VICKI BARKER, BYLINE: In the 1968 opera "The Passenger," Liese, a former SS guard at Auschwitz, is traveling to Brazil with her much older diplomat husband who is unaware of her past. Liese spots a mysterious passenger whom she thinks she recognizes, a former inmate she thought was dead. That moment had its genesis in the real-life experience of Zofia Posmysz, the author of the novel on which the libretto was based. A Polish Catholic, Posmysz was sent to Auschwitz after she was caught reading an anti-Nazi leaflet. For three years, she worked as a clerk in the kitchens under an SS overseer who, though part of the killing machine, treated Posmysz fairly.

ZOFIA POSMYSZ: (Through Translator) She was always making sure that I was wearing clean clothes and clean laundry. Lice and fleas were very common, so I think she did it for her own comfort as well.

BARKER: After the war, many of the guards at Auschwitz were tried for their crimes. Posmysz' overseer was not among them. And then one day in 1959, Posmysz was in Paris.

POSMYSZ: (Through Translator) And suddenly, I heard voice saying in German: Erika, come here. We have to go. And that was the high-pitched voice of my overseer from Auschwitz.

BARKER: Posmysz whirled around. It was a stranger. But it got her thinking, she says...

POSMYSZ: (Through Translator) What I would do, or how I would behave if that was she? Would I call the police, or would I just approach her and say hello? That's how the idea of the story began.

BARKER: She 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 settle in for an experience that was denied the opera's composer. Mieczyslaw 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.


BARKER: 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...


BARKER: ...and below, a dark underworld that is Auschwitz, women prisoners with shaved heads moving in darkness through sulfurous pools of light as SS officers call out the numbers of those who are to die.


BARKER: Watching over both worlds, a chorus in modern dress: the present moment witnessing and judging these dramas from the past.


BARKER: In the ship scenes, Liese and her husband grapple with the revelation of Liese's past, 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.


BARKER: In the Auschwitz scenes, we see SS guard Liese toying with a strong-willed polish prisoner, 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.

DAVID POUNTNEY: I had to be very sure this was going to turn out to be a very good work because you can't engage with that subject except on the highest level of artistic integrity that this piece definitely has.

BARKER: The English national opera production has been playing to packed houses. Pountney 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 much-decorated composer, seen in the same rank as Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Weinberg left behind 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.


BARKER: 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.

POSMYSZ: (Through Translator) All these people, they still have power over us. 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 from our lives.

BARKER: "The Passenger" will have its American debut in Houston in 2014. For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.

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