An Israeli opera to remember

'The Passenger’, an opera by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, touches on raw collective and individual nerves.

‘The Passenger’ (photo credit: KARL FORESTER)
‘The Passenger’
(photo credit: KARL FORESTER)
Opera is a highly dramatic art forms and, as creators and performers alike note, can reference all kinds of everyday situations and sensibilities. The pertinence element takes on a far more palpable magnitude when the subject touches on raw collective and individual nerves. That is clearly the case with the next offering from the Israeli Opera.
The music for The Passenger, which opens in Tel Aviv on April 30, with five more performances scheduled through to May 6, was written by Polish-born Soviet Jewish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg, based on a book by Zofia Posmysz. Posmysz is a 95-year-old survivor of Auschwitz who became a novelist and journalist and in 1962, wrote a memoir of her experiences in the concentration camp called Pasażerka z Kabiny 45 – Passenger in Cabin 45 – which was aired as a radio drama in 1959.
The radio version gave birth to an autobiographical novel, in 1962, and was subsequently adapted into a film. The movie was screened at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival, where it won a FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) Award and was also selected as the Polish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 37th Oscar Academy Awards.
‘The Passenger’. ( Karl Forester)‘The Passenger’. ( Karl Forester)
Weinberg, who lost his entire family in the Holocaust, was inspired by the book to write the music for the operatic work in 1968, although it took more than four decades for the opera to materialize. It was staged for the first time in 2010, at the Bregenz Festival in Austria.
The storyline, based on the Russian libretto by Alexander Medvedev, is set 16 years after the end of WWII, feeding off the chilling recollections of Lisa, a happily married German woman on an ocean liner with her diplomat husband, en route to his new posting in Brazil. Lisa is rudely shaken out of her comfortable existence when she espies another female passenger, Martha – performed by Hungarian soprano Adrienn Miksch and Latvian-born Israeli counterpart Ira Bertman – who reminds her of an inmate of Auschwitz whom she assumed had perished. Shocked by the sighting, Lisa is transported back to the war when she served on the concentration camp staff, and is forced to share her unsavory past with her previously unsuspecting husband.
Being involved in such a work, especially in this country, naturally can be fraught with danger, and demands the utmost sensitivity to ensure both artistic integrity, and attention to detail and to potential political traps.
‘The Passenger’. ( Karl Forester)‘The Passenger’. ( Karl Forester)
STEVEN MERCURIO is alert to the need to keep his professional wits about him. The 63-year-old conductor, on his inaugural outing with the Israeli Opera, has built up an impressive portfolio over the years, featuring such enduring chestnuts as Puccini’s La Boheme, Il Trovatore by Verdi and Andre Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire.
But, he notes, The Passenger is an entirely different professional, artistic and emotional kettle of fish. “This is not just a job,” says the American conductor whose surname stems from his father’s Italian roots, but whose mother is Jewish. “When you do this opera, and we’ve all felt doing it – three of the principals are the same who did it with us before – unlike doing La Traviata or Rigoletto, or even Madama Butterfly, which we love and want to get right for the composer – this becomes a mission. This becomes a way of telling a story that goes, clearly, far beyond work. You really have responsibilities here.”
Mercurio worked with British director David Pountney on the Weinberg opera on a couple of previous occasions, including performances in New York and Miami. And, if he had any doubts about the accuracy of the aesthetic portrayal of the production – the same, ship decks above a concentration camp scene, complete with train tracks, layering will be employed in Tel Aviv too – they were completely allayed by a response from a member of the Miami audience.
STEVEN MERCURIO. ( Israeli opera)STEVEN MERCURIO. ( Israeli opera)
“We had a sort of Q&A session after one of the performances,” Mercurio recalls. “Someone asked about the set we used [created by South African designer Johan Engels], and about how close it was to the original. Then a woman stood up and shouted ‘I was there! That’s exactly how it looked!’”
The conductor says he is keenly aware of how the presentation of the opera will be observed, and the emotional underpinning that goes with the project in hand. “The theme of the opera is remembering. The whole opera is about ‘We cannot forget.’ She, Martha, as a survivor, years later, starts remembering these people [at Auschwitz]. I will not forget. We will not forget.”
The Israeli Opera will perform The Passenger on April 30 (8 p.m.), May 2 (8 p.m.), May 3 (1 p.m.), May 4 (9 p.m.), May 5 (6 p.m.) and May 6 (8 p.m.). The opera is performed in Polish, Czech, Russian, German, French, English and Yiddish, with English and Hebrew subtitles. For tickets and more information: 03-692-7777 and