Poetry After Auschwitz: Weinberg’s the Passenger

By mhanna@houstongrandopera.org (Mena Mark Hanna)

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 …read more

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