The Passenger at the Lincoln Center Festival, New York

Making art of the Holocaust

As dramatic opera, The Passenger inhabits a grey zone of guard–prisoner relations

On Music

This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Days after The Zone of Interest won two Oscars in Hollywood, a shattering Holocaust opera was brought to the stage in Munich and Madrid. Like the Martin Amis novel on which Jonathan Glazer based his emotionless film, Mieczysław Weinberg’s The Passenger takes the perspective of a perpetrator: a female Auschwitz guard who encounters a former victim after the war. The SS woman is in shock, and we are expected to empathise.

Making art of the Holocaust is contentious. The worst crime in history cannot be contextualised, as Glazer attempted on Oscars night by comparing “dehumanising” Israeli actions to Auschwitz.

The Holocaust is an unique horror that can be understood from two standpoints: victim and oppressor. That bilateralism is what makes The Passenger one of the most essential operas of modern times, a status reinforced by recent productions.

Passenger in Cabin 24 started out as a 1959 Polish radio play by Zofia Posmysz who, as a young Krakow resistant, had been sent to Auschwitz in 1942.

Rather than relive her own experience, Posmysz wrote about a Nazi guard, Lisa. On a ship to a new life in South America, Lisa sees (or imagines) a beautiful prisoner named Marta, whose life she once tried (or thinks she tried) to save. It is never clear whether Marta is real or illusory.

Posmysz’s work was translated into Russian and sent to composer Dmitri Shostakovich. He gave it to Mieczyslaw Weinberg, who as a Polish refugee in Moscow caught sight of a KGB guard who abused him in prison. The Passenger touched both parts of his life, as a survivor of Hitler and Stalin. It preoccupied him for a decade but never reached the stage.

The Polish composer Krzysztof Meyer, a friend of Weinberg’s, told me the Soviet Ministry of Culture approved it for the 1967 jubilee of Bolshevik rule, but the composer missed his deadline. The Bolshoi Theatre then turned it down, saying the public was fed up with war stories.

Shostakovich enthused about The Passenger, but Meyer never heard a word about it from Weinberg, who went back to composing for cartoons on children’s TV.

In 2007, ten years after Weinberg’s death, The Passenger had a concert performance in Moscow. A British director, David Pountney, contacted Zofia Posmysz who took him to see the bunk she once occupied in Auschwitz.

Pountney created a two-tier set for the 2010 Bregenz festival, part ship deck, part hellhole. When it arrived at English National Opera in 2011, the Daily Telegraph gave the show two stars and the Jewish Chronicle’s editor hated “every minute of it”. My impression, jotted down after three harrowing hours, was that The Passenger was “something very close to a masterpiece”.

Since then, it has been seen across Germany, the United States, Russia, Israel and elsewhere. In a new Munich edition by director Tobias Kratzer and conductor Vladimir Jurowski, the Auschwitz dimension is stringently cut back, consigned to “shadows of dreadful memory, never explicit”, as the FT’s Shirley Apthorp put it.

Lost in this redaction was some of the opera’s most beautiful choral singing, but the show was accounted a triumph.

I went to Madrid’s Teatro Real to see the latest Pountney revival, conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who grew up loving Weinberg’s Soviet TV music for Winnie-the-Pooh. With a world-class orchestra and chorus, Mirga’s interpretation was exhilarating, highlighting the eclecticism Weinberg used to project Auschwitz’s universality, with captives drawn from Nordic fjords to North African mellahs.

The score opens with a splash of Alban Berg atonality, segues into Benjamin Britten-like sea music and raids Shostakovich for ribald mockery, all the while expressing Weinberg’s personal search for meaning (in Viktor Frankl’s enduring Auschwitz phrase).

Posmysz, who died in 2022 at Oswiecim (the Polish name for Auschwitz), refrained from passing judgement. She told us in London that Auschwitz guards came in three types: brutal sadists, dull bureaucrats and the few who behaved with occasional decency. The survival of compassion in Auschwitz was, for her, a cause for hope about the future of the human race.

Holocaust fictions are borderline offensive

As dramatic opera, The Passenger inhabits a grey zone of guard–prisoner relations. In the camp, Marta appears to exert a mystic hold, perhaps love, over Lisa. When the former guard, now a feted ambassador’s wife, disintegrates at Marta’s shipboard apparition, we as audience are forced to take sides: both sides. Art steps in where morality fears to tread. The Teatro Real was full, and the response was stunned. Pountney returned on closing night to offer therapy to the cast.

The question of permissibility persists. The Polish composer Meyer argues that “it’s difficult for me to accept a situation where we sing and show in an opera something that is an unimaginable tragedy, a moral catastrophe for humanity”.

He has a point. Holocaust fictions such as William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice and Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, not to mention two Martin Amis novels, are borderline offensive. On the other hand, our grasp of the human factor in the midst of genocide is vitally enhanced by Thomas Kenneally’s Schindler’s Ark and Stephen Spielberg’s epochal film.

The Passenger avoids simplification. It is an opera for grown-ups, a sign that opera has outgrown frivolity and is now equipped to engage with the toughest of choices. The Teatro Real under director Joan Matabosch is a beacon for the new seriousness.

Either side of The Passenger, the Real staged two monodramas about suicide, Poulenc’s La voix humaine and Schoenberg’s Erwartung, conjoined by a romantic soliloquy by actress Rossy de Palma.

There was not a seat to be had. In these testing times, adults are turning to opera for answers.

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