‘The Passenger’ makes its Israel debut

Moisey Weinberg’s opera entwines a Holocaust survivor and death camp guard

A SCENE from ‘The Passenger.’ (photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
A SCENE from ‘The Passenger.’
(photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
‘This man was the complete opposite of his biography. As an exquisite, fragile composer detached from the mundane life, he lived in the world of sounds. Yet the 20th century, with all its cataclysms, rolled over him like a tank and his entire music output turned into a requiem to the Holocaust,” says Victoria Bishops as she speaks about her late father Moisey (Mieczysław) Weinberg, a prominent Soviet composer of Polish Jewish origin. Before dying, Weinberg passed the score of his last symphony to Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center.
The long-awaited Israeli premier of Weinberg’s world-renowned opera The Passenger, which tells a story of a post-Second World War encounter between a Holocaust survivor and the former death camp guard, takes place in Tel Aviv on Tuesday.
Born in Warsaw in 1919 into a family of musicians, Weinberg emerged as a child prodigy and entered the Warsaw Conservatory at the age of 12, where he studied piano. From the same age, he supported his family by playing piano as a scorer in movie theaters. His parents, who came to Poland from Kishinev in 1916 to escape pogroms, were very poor and he used to practice at his cousin’s home, because the family couldn’t afford an instrument.
“He was a 19-year-old Conservatory graduate, when on September 3, 1939, with the Germans already in Warsaw, his mother prepared jam sandwiches for him and his 15-year-old sister, saying ‘Run, and we shall join you,’” said Bishops, unveiling the family saga with a subdued pain in her voice, which will be audible during her almost hour-long monologue.
For some reason, be it a corn on her foot or a broken heel, the girl returned home, asking her big brother to wait for her – but never came back. After being encircled by the Nazis together with a group of refugees and liberated by the Red Army, Weinberg managed to reach Minsk (the capital city of Belarus, a part of the Soviet Union), where he studied composition at the local Conservatory. Yet two years later, he was forced to continue his flight from the burning city occupied by the Germans, this time to Tashkent (Uzbekistan). It was there that he met his future wife, Natalia Vovsi, the daughter of  the prominent Yiddish actor and stage director Solomon Mikhoels, who was later assassinated by Stalin’s agents in 1949. It was in Tashkent that he composed his first symphony.
“There was something about my father, this mixture of idealism and immense charisma, that caused people to take care of him and protect him,” recollects Bishops. Composer Yuri Levitin, who from then on supported him, shared the score with Dmitry Shostakovich, who lived in Moscow. The latter immediately realized that he wanted to take care of the talented young composer and urged him to come to Moscow. Thus, in 1943, the Weinbergs moved to the Russian capital.
On February 6, 1953, at the peak of the “Doctors’ Plot” large-scale antisemitic campaign, Weinberg was arrested on charges of “Jewish bourgeois nationalism – partly because he was the son-in-law of the murdered Mikhoels, and partly because of his interest in Jewish music,” explains Bishops.
“For 76 days, my father was kept in solitary confinement, where he was denied sleep and harshly interrogated, but he never signed any false accusations against his friends. Shostakovich wrote to Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s omnipotent henchman, asking him to intercede on my father’s behalf, as well as agreeing to look after me in case my mother would be also arrested.” It was Stalin’s death that saved Weinberg.
THEREAFTER, WEINBERG continued to live in Moscow, composing and performing as a pianist. His has never been music for the masses, but “every piece he composed was premiered by the best Soviet soloists and orchestras, in front of the halls packed to full capacity,” confides the composer’s daughter.
Bishops says that with exception of well-paid music for film, theater and circus, his entire music output was dedicated to the Holocaust.
“This includes The Flowers of Poland oratorio on the poems by Jewish Polish poet Julian Tuvim, the Sixth Symphony with a boys’ choir and more. And, of course, The Passenger.”
The opera is based on the autobiographic novel of the same title by Zofia Posmysz, a Polish journalist and author, who was a resistance fighter in the Second World War and survived imprisonment at the Auschwitz and Ravensbruck concentration camps.
“My father was deeply impressed by the story and decided to write an opera,” Bishop recalled. “I remember Zofia visiting us in Moscow. Father took her to his study and questioned her closely behind the closed door about the life in the concentration camp, entering every possible detail. Only later, Posmysz realized that he was not doing this as a part of preparation for writing his opera. For him, this was probably the only way to learn about the last days of his dear ones, who perished in a death camp.”
The opera was scheduled to be performed in Moscow, but in 1967, after the Six Day War, the USSR cut its diplomatic relations with Israel and the piece was banned. As a result, The Passenger premiered in Russia in concert form only in 2006, 10 years after the composer’s death. It was later discovered by British director David Pountney, who staged it at Bregentz Festival in 2010 – and since then, it is performed on the best stages around.
In the past, some musicologists claimed that as a composer, Weinberg was overshadowed by his famous friend Dmitry Shostakovich.
“But now critics see it differently,” argues Bishops. “They see him as an original composer. True, Shostakovich and my father were closest friends ever, in many ways and used to meet on a daily basis, exchanging musical ideas. Shostakovich highly appreciated my father’s music and according to some researchers, the former’s interest in Jewish music might have been caused by my father.”
Shostakovich also said that he would have been proud if he himself would be the one who had composed The Passenger.
She concludes, “One way or another, nowadays music by Mieczysław Weinberg is being performed throughout the world and celebrates a true revival in Russia.”
The opera The Passenger by Mieczysław Weinberg with libretto by Alexander Medevdev in the revived Pountney production will be performed by the Israeli Opera by the local and international cast under the baton of Steven Mercurio from April 30 to May 6.
For more details and reservations, visit the Israel Opera site: http://www.israel-opera.co.il/eng/?CategoryID=870&ArticleID=2773