LONDON - The hall of the London Coliseum theater in the West End was packed. A few minutes before the English National Opera was due to begin its evening performance, a varied audience had taken its seats in the elegant hall. In addition to the smartly dressed opera buffs were quite a number of young people in T-shirts, as well as tourists carrying bags from their latest shopping expedition. The orchestra began tuning its instruments and the torn black screen, spotted with rust marks, was raised. On the stage could be seen railroad tracks and overcrowded benches in faded black.
The audience had not come to hear a classical performance or a light opera filled with catchy music, but to see "The Passenger," an opera that is set mostly in Auschwitz.
The women's enchanting voices sang about the SS, while the choir pitched in with a loud chorus about Auschwitz. The opera's story, based on a book by Zofia Posmysz, a Polish Catholic woman who survived three years at the death camp, is about an Auschwitz survivor and an Auschwitz guard who meet on the deck of a cruise ship heading to Brazil.
Now that the season is over and more than 15,000 people have seen the opera, it can be said that this was the most talked-about production of the year. Even in the hall itself, arguments broke out between those who were in favor of the production and those who had difficulty swallowing it, while the British press held a furious debate over it.
The story is one of survival, of feelings of guilt, love and suffering. At the performance I attended, the audience members sat glued to their seats, listening to the unfamiliar music. "It's interesting, but I'd have preferred it if the music was more accessible," said a member of the audience sitting near to me.
The opera, which is due to reach Israel in 2013, also received mixed reviews in the British press. Many critics described it as a masterpiece, with one calling it the most courageous way of dealing with the significance of the Holocaust. But others argued that it was a devastating failure or a disgrace, and doubted whether it would have been possible for a camp guard to feel pangs of guilt.
Grabbing a glass of champagne
The Jewish Chronicle was the most vociferous in its opposition to the opera. "Whatever private response to the Shoah anyone creates is their own business," wrote the paper's editor, Stephen Pollard. "But when that response is played out on stage in a fictional psycho-drama about the relationship between a guard and an inmate, with a love story between two inmates as the engine of the plot, performed in a glossy production, with actorly rictus expressions of misery, to an audience nipping off for champagne bar refreshment at the interval, then it moves from the private sphere to the obscenely inappropriate public sphere."
In defending the show in The Guardian, Vernon Ellis, chairman of the English National Opera, refuted Pollard's statement that "The Passenger" turns the Holocaust into "fodder for entertainment."
"Art is an essential component of a civilised society. It enables us to confront extremes of behaviour, personal and public; it helps communicate difficult issues; it challenges and provokes as well as lifts the spirit," wrote Ellis. "One of the most powerful moments in the opera is when a prisoner is told by the Commander to play a sentimental waltz, and instead plays the Bach D minor Chaconne, a work described by Brahms as 'a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings' - with a gut-wrenching aftermath of the violin being smashed and the prisoner being taken away to his death. This was, in the words of one critic 'an extremely symbolic confrontation - Germany at its noblest confronting Germany at its foulest.'"
Nothing like it since 'War and Peace'
The history of "The Passenger" is no less intriguing than the performance. Posmysz wrote the book on which the opera is based after she thought a German tourist she encountered on a visit to Paris had been her prison guard at Auschwitz. This brought back a flood of memories.
"My barracks was next to the barbed wire fence and the hut where the selection was made," she wrote. "A large group of people who had come from Hungary were sent to the crematorium and had been waiting on the platform for hours. During all those long hours, our excellent orchestra was playing all kinds of happy tunes. It was horrible. The people on the other side of the fence heard the orchestra and waved to us. They imagined they would be sent to the other side of the fence and that it would not be as awful as they had expected. One day I heard singing coming from there; I think it was a rabbi with his arms outstretched, who was singing there. It was a song that went inside one's bones, undoubtedly a prayer. Someone told me later that it was Kaddish. That was the music. The children didn't know what was going to happen; they ran around and played together, that was all."
The composer of the music, Mieczyslaw Weinberg, was born in 1919, the son of an actress and a composer at the Jewish Theater in Warsaw. He was a wunderkind who had planned to study music in the United States, but was forced to flee to Belarus when the Nazis overran Poland. His parents and sister were sent to the Lodz ghetto and then to Auschwitz. When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, he fled east to Tashkent, where he met a woman called Natalia - the daughter of Solomon Michaels, the most famous Jewish actor in the Soviet Union in those days. The two were married and moved to Moscow in 1943, where things did not go so smoothly.
Some of Weinberg's works were banned in the Soviet Union. His father-in-law was murdered on Stalin's instructions during an anti-Semitic outburst in 1948, and Weinberg himself was arrested in 1953 on charges of Jewish bourgeois nationalism.
The music for "The Passenger" was written in 1968 and it was considered the most important of his large body of work, which includes seven operas, 22 symphonies and a large number of sonatas, as well as sound tracks for films. However, Weinberg did not live to see "The Passenger" performed. The Soviet authorities declared his work to be "abstract humanism" - a code for "Jewish" - and forbade its performance. The opera was all but forgotten in the Soviet Union, and Weinberg was almost completely unknown in the West.
When the Soviet Union was disbanded, the copyrights held by the government were sold to various companies. One of these, Peer Music, bought the rights for part of the opera's music and sent a letter to potential clients. David Pountney, director of productions for the English National Opera, was one of them. He almost tossed the letter, but decided to pursue it and had the opera translated. Pountney even went so far as to describe Weinberg's work as the most important opera written in the Russin language since Profokiev's "War and Peace."
Weinberg, who died in 1986, is quoted in the opera program as saying that he was forced to deal with war, because of the tragic fate of his family. It is my moral duty, he said, to write about war and the terrible things that happened to people in our century.
"The Passenger" became a personal project for Pountney, and the premiere was held in 2010 at, of all places, the Bregenz opera festival in Austria - before a German-speaking audience and in a country that has denied its part in the Holocaust. The audience was forced to deal with sarcastic remarks in the opera such as "We Germans are known for our pangs of conscience."
Pountney said he was anxious to see how an Austrian audience would react and could sense that they did not view "The Passenger" as just another performance. It was a work about their family, and the audience was very impressed, he said, adding: It was strange and wonderful.