Houston Grand Opera Brings THE PASSENGER to Park Avenue Armory, 7/10-13
Houston Grand Opera's U.S. premiere of Mieczyslaw Weinberg's The Passenger-the long-suppressed Holocaust opera that Shostakovich declared "a perfect masterpiece"-earned virtually universal acclaim earlier this year. The Chicago Tribune declared The Passenger to be an "engrossing, thought-provoking experience," while the Houston Chronicle praised the presentation for "ingenious storytelling, potent music, commanding performances and vivid, fast-paced staging." Now HGO brings the David Pountney production of The Passenger for its New York premiere in three performances July 10, 12, and 13 at the Park Avenue Armory as part of the 2014 Lincoln Center Festival. Pountney's staging was inspired, in part, by the soaring space of Park Avenue Armory's massive Wade Thompson Drill Hall, where he produced Zimmermann's Die Soldaten for Lincoln Center Festival in 2008. HGO artistic and music director Patrick Summers will conduct the HGO Orchestra and Chorus; reviewing the Houston performances, the Wall Street Journal praised Summers for the way he "shaped the evening with enormous care." The Dallas Morning News commended all the singers, headed by mezzo-soprano Michelle Breedt in the title role, saying: "Top to bottom, the cast is excellent."
Weinberg (1919-96) based The Passenger on a Polish novel by Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz. The Polish-Jewish composer also knew intimately the dangerous vicissitudes of life in midcentury Europe; he was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust. Yet escaping to the Soviet Union would come to mean a second period of danger and discrimination for Weinberg under the cultural repression of the Stalin regime. Many of Weinberg's works were banned; others, like The Passenger, were deemed "cosmopolitan"-a euphemism for Jewish-and censored by the Kremlin, doomed to be unperformed during his lifetime. Today, his works are enjoying a posthumous resurgence, including several recordings. The composer was the subject of a recent monograph titled Mieczyslaw Weinberg: In Search of Freedom, with the UK's Observer recognizing him as "an artist of fierce honesty and compositional dexterity."
Set in the late 1950s, The Passenger depicts a German couple, Liese and Walter, who are on board an ocean liner where Liese, a former SS officer, thinks she recognizes among their fellow passengers one of her erstwhile Auschwitz prisoners. Juxtaposed with scenes on board the luxury ship are flashbacks to the railway tracks, ovens and barracks of the camp where she once wielded authority. Liese is never able to confirm whether the woman she sees is truly Marta, the Jewish woman she once manipulated, and The Passenger makes no attempt at closure or reconciliation. Instead, the harsh realities of the mass murder Liese helped perpetrate, and of her inescapable guilt, are unsparingly confronted.
Despite the Soviet suppression of Weinberg's masterwork, The Passenger had the staunch support of fellow composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who wrote in 1974:
I shall never tire of the opera The Passenger by M. Weinberg. I have heard it three times already and have studied the score. Besides, I understood the beauty and enormity of this music better and better on each occasion. It is a perfect masterpiece.
Nonetheless, The Passenger was not heard in concert until 2006 and would not be fully staged until the efforts of David Pountney bore fruit. The English director, whose honors include a CBE and Chevalier in France's Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, serves as chief executive and artistic director of Welsh National Opera and as intendant of the Bregenz Festival. It was at the Bregenz Festival in 2010 that he finally found a venue for the long overdue premiere of Weinberg's opera (the libretto of which he adapted into English). The New York Times reported:
The work was brilliantly served by David Pountney's production. Johan Engels's two-level set, with the ship above and the camp below-bleakly characterized by railroad tracks and wooden bunks-facilitated the shift in action from one to the other. Marie-Jeanne Lecca's realistic costumes, which dressed all those on board ship in white, heightened the contrast.
In October 2010, the production of The Passenger moved to the Teatr Wielki in Warsaw for its Polish premiere. The next year, Pountney and his team brought the same staging to London's English National Opera, where the critical response was overwhelming. The Telegraph recognized that "in Weinberg's Holocaust opera The Passenger, we have one of the most unflinching engagements with this subject ever made." The Times of London noted: "It's an opera teeming with overt references, from haunting Russian folksong to blaring German marches, as well as astringent string writing reminiscent of Britten ... A compelling historical document that demanded an airing-lest we forget." The Independent pronounced it "the most significant opera composed in the Russian language since Prokofiev's War and Peace."
Michelle Breedt has consistently drawn praise for her nuanced portrayal of Liese, as in the Arts Desk report on her performance in London: "Since Bregenz, she's tried to further humanize the young camp overseer whose rejected need to be loved or admired by her charges warps into subtle psychological sadism. Breedt has always been totally in command of Liese the older woman with a conscience that won't let her evade the truth, hard as she tries."
The Wall Street Journal also singled out soprano Melody Moore for giving Marta's "anguish lyricism and strength," and praised soprano Kelly Kaduce for being "mesmerizing" as Katya. They are joined in the cast by baritone Morgan Smith ("luminous," according to the Wall Street Journal), as well as tenor Joseph Kaiser. The Toronto Star summed up HGO's performances of The Passenger by saying: "It is an act of remembrance, a call to conscience, a letter to the future from those who have experienced a terrible past. Houston Grand Opera can take pride in its presentation."
The HGO performances of The Passenger are being co-presented in New York by the Lincoln Center Festival and Park Avenue Armory. The presentation is made possible in part by generous support from the Polska Music Program of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, Robert and Helen Appel, the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, Larry A. and Klara Silverstein, Judy and Michael Steinhardt, Nancy & Morris W. Offit, and one anonymous donor. Additional support provided by the National Endowment for the Arts.
The Passenger is a co-production of Bregenzer Festspiele, Teatr Wielki, English National Opera and Teatro Real. HGO's performances of The Passenger in New York are generously underwritten by Bill and Sara Morgan, and Amanda and Morris Gelb. Additional support provided by Robin Angly & Miles Smith, Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, Joyce Z. Greenberg, Houston First Corporation, Houston Methodist, Schlumberger, Rhonda and Donald Sweeney, and Phoebe and Bobby Tudor.
About Houston Grand Opera
Houston Grand Opera announced at its annual meeting last month that its 2013-14 season surpassed previous records for attendance and fundraising. Marking the fourth consecutive year of expanding its season, HGO presented eight main-stage productions (up from seven last season), with a total of 49 performances - compared to 46 the previous year. Attendance rose 3 percent over last season, or 28 percent over 2009-10, and the organization's comprehensive campaign has raised more than $157 million, on track to reach its $165 million goal by December 2014.
Since its inception in 1955, Houston Grand Opera has grown from a small regional organization into an internationally renowned opera company. HGO enjoys a reputation for commissioning and producing new works, including 52 world premieres and seven American premieres since 1973. In addition to producing and performing world-class opera, the HGO contributes to the cultural enrichment of Houston and the nation through a diverse and innovative program of performances, community events, and education projects that reaches the widest possible public. HGO has toured extensively, including trips to Europe and Asia, and it is the only opera company to have won a Tony, two Grammy awards and two Emmy awards. HGO's performances are broadcast nationally over the WFMT Radio Network.
Through HGOco, Houston Grand Opera creates opportunities for Houstonians of all ages and backgrounds to observe, participate in and create art. Its Song of Houston project is an ongoing initiative to create and share work based on stories that define the unique character of Houston and its diverse cultures. Since 2007, HGOco has commissioned 16 new works along with countless innovative community projects, reaching more than 1 million people in the greater Houston metropolitan area. The NEXUS Initiative is HGO's multi-year ticket underwriting program that allows Houstonians of all ages and backgrounds to enjoy world-class opera without the barrier of price. Since 2007, NEXUS has enabled more than 142,000 Houstonians to experience first-quality opera through discounted single tickets and subscriptions, subsidized student performances and free productions. More information about Houston Grand Opera and its productions is available at HGO.org.
Photo Credit: Lynn Lane