Sunday, November 15, 2015

A night at the opera

Yesterday I went to see the Michigan Opera Theater presentation of The Passenger by Mieczyslaw Weinberg. It was written in the 1960s and first performed in 2010. I'll tell that part of the story in a bit.

The basic plot: Walter and Liese, a German couple are on their way by ship to Brazil where he will serve in the German embassy. But Liese sees someone from her past on the ship and it brings out secrets. Liese used to be an SS overseer in the women's barracks at Auschwitz. The woman she sees on the ship is Marta, from Poland, who helped Liese control the other prisoners, yet remained defiant. Liese is sure Marta had died. Yes, some of the scenes are in Auschwitz, showing how Marta interacts with Liese and how Marta takes care of and protects the international group of fellow prisoners, though she is only 20. She is called the Madonna of the Barracks.

Also at the camp is Tadeusz, Marta's fiance, though they don't meet until they've been there two years. They meet when Tadeusz goes to the room where Marta is sorting through luggage new arrivals are forced to abandon. The camp Kommendant wants Tadeusz to play a violin for him. Surely, there is a decent violin in all this luggage. But Tadeusz refuses Liese's offer to allow him and Marta to meet again because he refuses to be beholden to Liese.

The book on which the libretto is based is by Zofia Posmysz. She survived Auschwitz and later though she saw her overseer in Paris (though it turned out to be someone else). That idea prompted her book, though the situation is reversed – the overseer thinking she sees her former prisoner.

Some of Weinberg's relatives died in the camps. When he had a chance he escaped east to the Soviet Union. Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich was impressed with Weinberg's work and invited him to Moscow where the two became friends. Weinberg poured his heart into this opera. It was set to premier in 1968 – but that was indefinitely postponed because the authorities said it was contrary to the principles of Soviet Realism. So Weinberg never saw his masterpiece performed.

After Weinberg died many of his papers were sent to the West, including this opera. A consortium of opera houses, including ones in Austria, Poland, England, Spain, and Detroit put up the funding to get the opera staged, which was or will be performed in each city.

I found all aspects of the production to be the highest quality. The set was on two levels, the deck of a ship above and Auschwitz below. Around the central area that held up the ship deck was a circular railway track with two more tracks cutting through the circle and heading upstage. For some scenes there were rail carts that were pushed forward. For others two curved rail cars were moved from the side of the circle to the front. The top of one held the ship's cabin for Walter and Liese. The outside of the other was filled with cubbyholes that served as the beds for the women's barracks. Those train tracks did a good job of evoking Auschwitz, where prisoners arrived by train.

The music is quite modern and there aren't any hummable tunes, but it fits the story and text quite well. All of the singers were excellent. The libretto is in seven languages – Walter and Liese and her SS comrades sang in German. Marta and Tadeusz sang in Polish. The other women sang in their native languages – Russian, Czech, French, and Yiddish. There was a men's chorus that occasionally commented on the action that sat in the railcar that became the women's barracks. They sang in English. During scenes in the barracks they leaned over the edge and watched, not as voyeurs, but as witnesses. Yes, there were supertitles above the stage that translated everything.

Yes, some of the action was grim, but there were also many touching and beautiful moments, such as when the women care for each other, when they sang about their hopes for life after the war, when they sang about how they might choose to die, when one sings a song of her homeland, and in the epilogue when Marta exquisitely sings about keeping alive the memory of her friends who were murdered.

It was an excellent evening. I highly recommend seeing it. Three performances remain. During intermission an usher asked if I was enjoying the performance. I said this story isn't one that someone enjoys.

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