Houston Grand Opera to Present U.S. Premiere of THE PASSENGER, 1/18/14
On January 18, 2014, Houston Grand Opera (HGO) presents the American premiere of The Passenger (1968), a powerful Holocaust opera by exiled Polish-Jewish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg. Based on a novel by Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz, The Passenger was recognized as "a perfect masterpiece" by Shostakovich but was censored by the Soviet establishment and never performed in Weinberg's lifetime. It premiered at the 2010 Bregenz Festival, and its subsequent UK premiere at the English National Opera took place only thanks to award-winning British director David Pountney, whose staging inspired the Telegraph to write: "Risky though it may be to label a first production 'definitive,' it is hard to imagine it ever being done better." Now HGO brings the same production across the Atlantic, complete with mezzo-soprano Michelle Breedt, who "excelled" (New York Times) in the leading role at two European premieres. All five of The Passenger's first American performances (Jan 18-Feb 2) will be led byPatrick Summers, HGO's artistic and music director.
Houston Grand Opera boasts a longstanding tradition of creating and presenting important premieres, from the centuries-overdue first American staging of Handel's Rinaldo with Marilyn Horne in the title role, to world premiere productions of such contemporary classics as Leonard Bernstein's A Quiet Place, John Adams's Nixon in China, and Mark Adamo's Little Women, and the American premiere of Philip Glass's Akhnaten. Among HGO's most recent world premieres were presentations of Jake Heggie's Three Decembers (2008), André Previn's Brief Encounter (2009), and Leonard Foglia and José "Pepe" Martinez's Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (2010), all of which were commissioned by the company. By bringing The Passenger to America, Houston Grand Opera now also plays a key role in restoring to the canon and pioneering those operas that have been unjustly suppressed or neglected. Thanks to HGO, Weinberg will soon join the ranks of composers like Ernst Krenek, Franz Schreker, and Sergei Taneyev, whose operas have only recently been staged in America.
Polish-born composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-96) was the only member of his immediate family to survive the Holocaust, having escaped in 1939 when Germany invaded his homeland. Sadly, his relocation to the Soviet Union only meant a second period of danger and discrimination under Stalin. Many of Weinberg's works were banned; others, like The Passenger, were deemed "cosmopolitan"-a euphemism for Jewish-and never performed. Today, however, his works are enjoying a posthumous resurgence. He was the subject of a recent monograph titled Mieczyslaw Weinberg: In Search of Freedom and is recognized as "an artist of fierce honesty and compositional dexterity" (Observer, UK).
Weinberg's magnum opus was his first opera The Passenger (1968), set to a libretto by Alexander Medvedev and based on Passenger from Cabin Number 45 (1959), a Polish radio play by Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz. Set in the late 1950s, the opera depicts a German couple, Liese and Walter, 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 and complex realities of the mass murder Liese helped perpetrate, and of her inescapable guilt feelings, are unsparingly confronted.
Despite the Soviet suppression of Weinberg's masterwork, it had the staunch support of 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 opera 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 2010 Bregenz Festival that he finally found a venue for the long overdue premiere of The Passenger. 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 moved to the Teatr Wielki in Warsaw for its Polish premiere. The following 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 Mieczyslaw Weinberg's Holocaust opera The Passenger, we have one of the most unflinching engagements with this subject ever made." The Times of London agreed: "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," while the Independent pronounced it "the most significant opera composed in the Russian language since Prokofiev's War and Peace."
South African mezzo-soprano Michelle Breedt consistently drew praise for her nuanced portrayal of Liese, as seen in the Arts Desk's report on her performance in London:
"A finer, more secure voice than Michelle Breedt's hasn't been heard at ENO. 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."
Making her house debut in Houston Grand Opera's upcoming revival, Michelle Breedt will be joined by Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser, best known for his starring role in Kenneth Branagh's film adaptation of The Magic Flute, and by soprano Melody Moore, whose recent HGO house debut in Show Boat was praised by audiences and critics alike.