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Poetry After Auschwitz: Weinberg's the Passenger

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In 1949, Theodore Adorno wrote the following phrase in his essay Cultural Criticism and Society: "to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric... " In eight words, the German Jewish philosopher summed up the monumental challenge art has faced after the horrors of the Holocaust: How can art retain its redemptive and curative powers after such methodical human extermination?

There are works of art that seek to overturn Adorno's dictum: the writings of Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel and W. G. Sebald come to mind, as does Arnold Schönberg's oratorio Survivor from Warsaw. For the musical stage, works memorializing the Holocaust are harder to come by: Viktor Ullman's Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis) and Hans Krása's children's opera Brundibár (both Krása and Ullman were interned at Theresienstadt) attempt to come to terms with the Holocaust through metaphor; Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Die Soldaten (The Soldiers) eulogizes the loss of innocence caused by the barbarity of the twentieth century.

However, Mieczysław Weinberg's The Passenger, which received its North American premiere on January 18 and runs through February 2 at Houston Grand Opera, stands apart in its bold attempt to reenact the savagery of World War II on the musical stage. The Polish composer and his Russian librettist, Alexander Medvedev, produced an opera that not only seeks to write poetry after Auschwitz, but also attempts to confront the grotesque terror head-on. This opera is unlike any other work. David Pountney's production of The Passenger, first seen at the Bregenz Festival in 2010, so effectively fuses music, words, and stagecraft that the result is overwhelmingly visceral. Working on The Passenger in rehearsals is a daunting task; the opera is draining and unrelenting (watch an interview with HGO Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers and David Pountney here).

A chance incident in 1959 inspired the novel that became the basis for Weinberg's opera. Zofia Posmysz -- a Polish Catholic who was imprisoned in Auschwitz -- was strolling along the Place de la Concorde in Paris when a German tourist called out. Her blood froze: She thought she had heard the voice of her Aufseherin, her former concentration camp guard. This close brush with her past led Posmysz to write a radio play, Passenger in Cabin 45, that imagines the scenario from the opposite perspective: Liese, a former Aufseherin, is traveling on a cruise ship to South America with her older, diplomat husband, Walter. When she sees another passenger who appears to be Marta, a prisoner from Auschwitz thought dead, Liese becomes tormented by the memories of her chilling past, which she has kept secret. The resounding success of Posmysz's radio play spurred the writer to rework the story into a novel, which in turn inspired Weinberg's opera, finished in 1968.

Weinberg knew firsthand the atrocities of the 20th century. Born in 1919, he grew up in Poland, the son of a Jewish violinist. In 1939, Weinberg was unable to escape from the Nazis by traveling west, so he traveled east toward Russia, leaving behind his sister and parents, who were all to perish in the Trawniki concentration camp. Weinberg stayed for two years in Minsk, where he studied composition with Vassily Zolotaryov, a former student of Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov. He was safe until Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. Again, Weinberg was forced to flee. He went further east, deep into the massive expanse of Stalin's communist empire, eventually settling in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where he found work in the opera house. There, Weinberg married the daughter of a prominent Russian Jewish actor, Solomon Mikhoels, who personally delivered the score of Weinberg's First Symphony to Dmitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich was so impressed with the work that he arranged for Weinberg to receive an invitation to live in Moscow. Weinberg would live in the Russian capital for the rest of his life.

As chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, Solomon Mikhoels traveled the world, meeting with Jewish communities to encourage them to support the Soviet Union's war effort. After the war, however, Stalin saw contact with outside communities as a potential threat. Stalin ordered the death of Solomon Mikhoels in 1948, whose murder was disguised as a hit-and-run car accident. Once again, Weinberg's life was in danger.

The composer was arrested in February 1953, on charges of "Jewish bourgeois nationalism" in connection to the so-called Doctors' Plot, an episode in which many Jews were accused of being conspiratorial assassins targeting the Soviet leadership. While he was in prison, Shostakovich and his wife, Nina, officially signed adoption papers for Weinberg's daughter if the worst were to happen. Shostakovich also wrote to Lavrenti Beria, the head of the Soviet secret police, insisting on Weinberg's innocence, an action that carried considerable risk. Weinberg would almost certainly have been killed had Stalin not died early the next month; the composer was released from prison with no knowledge of Stalin's death. Weinberg's life encapsulates the plight of Eastern European Jews in the twentieth century: incessant hounding and persecution -- first at the hand of Hitler, then under the brutality of Stalin.

Remarkably, Weinberg never expressed any animosity toward his country of refuge; Russia--for him -- was a second chance, an opportunity to continue composing. Weinberg and Shostakovich became close, their families and careers intertwined throughout their lives. Shostakovich once described Weinberg as "one of the most outstanding composers of the present day." When Posmysz's novel was published in Russian translation by the journal Inostrannaya literatura (Foreign Literature), Shostakovich -- who immediately recognized the novel's operatic potential -- passed it on to Medvedev, who in turn, handed it over to Weinberg. Medvedev traveled to Auschwitz with Posmysz; he saw her old quarters and learned directly from her about life in the concentration camp. His libretto captures the grit and cruelty of the place.

But the true emotional impact of the piece is relayed through music. Weinberg's score is hard-edged and angular. There is a softer side, as well: Russian folk songs, chant-like prayers, and allusions to Yiddish music are peppered throughout the inmates' dialogues. Grotesque corruptions of schmaltzy waltzes color the Nazis' tasteless musical escapism in the midst of the dark, unyielding inhumanity of Auschwitz. The result is dizzying.

Weinberg's masterstroke is a moment of musical resistance accomplished by Tadeusz, Marta's violinist fiancé, who is also an inmate at Auschwitz. When Tadeusz is called in front of Auschwitz authorities to play the camp commandant's favorite waltz, he responds by launching into Bach's Chaconne in D minor for solo violin. The camp inmate stands in front of a row of Nazi officers -- fearless -- performing the benchmark of German musical achievement instead of the banal waltz he was instructed to play, and the commandant becomes agitated, spitting and growling at this gesture of artistic defiance. A Polish prisoner is playing great German music -- and not just any German composer, but Bach, the Zeus of music's pantheon, who established the parameters of tonality and counterpoint that govern classical music. To the classical musician, Bach is sacred. As Tadeusz is beaten and dragged off stage -- his violin smashed -- the entire string section of the orchestra takes over the performance of the Chaconne. No one can silence Bach. No one can silence the moral courage of Weinberg's music.

But, The Passenger has remained silent for far too long. Shostakovich organized a private hearing of The Passenger at the Composers' Union, stating:

I have heard Mieczyslaw Weinberg's opera The Passenger [at the piano] for the third time, and with each hearing my astonishment grows in a crescendo! Apart from its musical merits, it is a work that is much needed today.

Shostakovich endorsed the opera as a masterpiece, prompting the interest of a number of Russian opera houses, and though the work went into rehearsal at the Bolshoi in 1968, Communist authorities promptly canceled it. Even after a period of relative liberalism that included the process of de-Stalinization, the Soviets were never very eager to acknowledge Jewish or Polish hardship.

According to David Fanning's excellent biography Mieczysław Weinberg: In Search of Freedom, Weinberg considered The Passenger to be his most important work. In his last days, the composer complained to Medvedev that he had never heard his greatest work performed. Medvedev promised to listen twice as hard -- once for the composer, once for himself -- if and when the premiere ever took place. The librettist did fulfill that promise, living to hear the The Passenger presented in an unstaged concert performance in Moscow in 2006, ten years after the composer had died. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Zofia Posmysz, the woman who survived Auschwitz and lived on to write about it, is the only surviving member of the original creators of The Passenger. If there is a single person who lives to write poetry after Auschwitz, it is she.

Originally published in the winter 2014 issue of Opera Cues, the official program book and magazine of Houston Grand Opera. Adapted and reprinted with permission.