Nothing in Lyric Opera’s searing production of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger is more dramatic than the cover of the program, with its strip of three photos of writer Zofia Posmycz, whose novel was the opera’s inspiration.
The images, taken in 1942, when Posmycz was a fresh-faced kid of 18, are the identity photographs for Auschwitz prisoner number 7566. A Polish Roman Catholic, Posmycz had been arrested for attending underground classes and associating with someone who was carrying resistance pamphlets. In the pictures, she wears prison stripes and a stony expression that says she’s already seen too much.
Posmycz survived three years in the infamous camp and went on to become a broadcast journalist. The impetus for The Passenger came to her on a Paris street in 1959 when she heard a familiar voice shouting in German and in a gut-wrenching flash thought she recognized her former Auschwitz SS overseer. It wasn’t, but the episode started Posmycz thinking about the consequences such a meeting, real or imagined, could have, not only for her but for her former oppressor.
Approaching the situation from the overseer’s perspective, she wrote the story first as a Polish radio play, Pasażerka z kabiny 45 (The Passenger From Cabin 45), and then in 1962 published it as a novel called The Passenger, set aboard a ship 15 years after the war. The overseer, Liese, is sailing to Brazil with her German diplomat husband, who knows nothing of her SS past, when she thinks she recognizes another passenger as her former prisoner, Marta. As Liese is seized by an overwhelming fear of discovery, the floodgates of memory are opened and the events of the death camp relived.
In the mid-1960s a Russian translation of the novel made its way to that country’s preeminent composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, who passed it on to Weinberg, his friend and protege, with the advice that he should make it into an opera.
The material was particularly apropos for Weinberg, a Polish-Jewish music prodigy who’d fled on foot to Russia in 1939, at the age of 19, when the Germans invaded. Weinberg’s family, remaining behind in Warsaw, was killed in Nazi camps. (Things were only marginally better in Russia. Under Stalin, Weinberg’s Latvian-Jewish father-in-law was executed, and Weinberg himself was imprisoned.) Weinberg enlisted Alexander Medvedev, another Shostakovich friend, as librettist, and the opera was completed in 1968.
The Passenger was scheduled for production in Moscow that year when it was squelched by government authorities, who—in spite of the authors’ efforts to insert just enough agitprop to get it past the censors—found it lacking in Soviet values. Even Shostakovich, who touted it as a “perfect masterpiece,” couldn’t help: The Passenger was buried for the next four decades. It was revived in this century by director David Pountney, who gave it its first full production, in Bregenz, Austria, in 2010, and is directing again at Lyric. Weinberg, a prolific composer who considered this his best opera, died in 1996 without ever seeing it produced. Medvedev, who had traveled to Auschwitz with Posmysz in order to convince her to allow the Weinberg adaptation, was too ill to attend the Bregenz premiere and died five days later.
At a press conference at the Polish embassy a week before the Lyric opening, Posmysz—a steel wisp of a woman, now 91—explained through a translator that her novel “was a personal history, about what a human being in extreme circumstances can do to another human being.” After a year in the camp, she said, she had learned to distinguish different categories of people among her captors: there were the criminals, sadists, and psychopaths, and there were those who followed SS rules exactly but would leave you alone as long as you obeyed. And then there were some who wouldn’t report you if you overstepped the rules because they didn’t want to have to act. “I looked for those,” she said. “I was looking for a trace of compassion, and sometimes I did find it.”
Lyric general director Anthony Freud has said that as the son of an Auschwitz survivor, he’s skeptical about Holocaust treatments, most of which strike him as “too simplistic, melodramatic or sentimental,” but that The Passenger “is an exception.” Credit Posmysz’s unconventional approach to her story and Weinberg’s familiar but disturbingly distorted musical treatment of it—from its machine-gun opening to its devastating Bach cameo. Credit also goes to the production designers, most notably Johan Engels, who died suddenly last year but whose legacy includes this indelible two-level set (suggested by Medvedev) that has the astringent, all-white world of an elegant ocean liner floating above the haunting bunkers of a murky, smoking, yellow-stained hell. Lyric’s multilingual run (characters sing in the language of their homelands) is also benefiting from excellent performances by mezzo-soprano Daveda Karanas as the bedeviled Liese, tenor Brandon Jovanovich as her husband, and—in what might well be the role of her life—soprano Amanda Majeski as a spectral and spectacular incarnation of Marta/Zofia.
Performances continue through March 15.