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Controversial Holocaust guard opera sets sail in Houston: Are you on board?

Houston Grand Opera The Passenger January 2014
A scene from The Passenger HGOpera/YouTube
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Passengers above, prisoners below.

With such a simple structure Houston Grand Opera opens a new year with Mieczysław Weinberg's haunting The Passenger, which runs from Saturday through February 2 at Wortham Theater Center.

Simple but devastating.

Above, Liese and Walter sail on a glorious cruise ship decked in white. Their only concern is what to drink and whether to dance or not as they sail to Walter’s new diplomatic posting in Brazil. But Liese quite literally carries her past with her, and recollections of her days as a concentration camp guard torment her after she thinks she sees a woman from the camp she believes to be dead.

 The world of opera — tragic opera, anyway — is a world in which suffering and beauty are often uncomfortable bedfellows. 

Where the ship is white, light and bright, the world of the camps is understandably grim, dark and brutal. Below the structure of the ship, a whole other drama unfolds as two lovers, Marta and Tadeusz, are ironically reunited in the camp in which Liese maneuvers to manipulate her prisoners. Marta and Tadeusz resist, which ultimately results in Tadeusz’s death. Although it is a final rebellious violin performance before the camp commandant that seals his fate, Liese was on the cusp of reporting Tadeusz and ensuring his execution.    

Although Theodor Adorno famously argued that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” a great deal of art has struggled with the enormity of the Holocaust. While some brave horror and destruction and a very few deploy humor, others concern themselves with questions about complicity or the complex psychology of victims and perpetrators. Take Liliana Cavani’s controversial and quite discomfiting film The Night Porter, in which an ex-Nazi officer, played by Dirk Bogarde, runs into one of his former prisoners, played by Charlotte Rampling, after the war. The chance encounter reignites a complex web of recollection, sadism and sex.

So, how to tell a story about a woman like Liese?

An intriguing feature of The Passenger is its reversal of conventions about Holocaust survival, which also provides one test of the work’s success. Although Marta provides the emotional heart of the recollected scenes, it is Liese’s story that dominates. The Passenger may be a study in tormented recollection, but Liese survives to enjoy the bright world of leisurely world travel. She was a guard, emphatically not a prisoner.

To the consternation of some, a perpetrator serves as survivor and protagonist. In a September 20, 2011 review for The Financial Times, Andrew Clark claims The Passenger “makes the frankly unbelievable assumption that Nazi death camp guards were capable of guilt-attacks long after their victims were gassed.”

The story of the production of The Passenger is as fraught with political complication as the narrative itself. Based on a 1959 radio play by Zofia Posmysz, an Auschwitz survivor, and with a libretto by Alexander Medvedev, the opera was scheduled to premiere in 1968, yet that opening was deferred for political reasons until a concert staging in Moscow in 2006.

Conducted by Patrick Summers and directed by David Pountney, Houston Grand Opera's production features Michelle Breedt and Joseph Kaiser as Walter and Liese, while Melody Moore and Morgan Smith play Taduesz and Katya.

The two layers of The Passenger, created by Johan Engels sets, raise fascinating questions of complicity. The world of opera — tragic opera, anyway — is a world in which suffering and beauty are often uncomfortable bedfellows. How much more uncomfortable is that combination in narrative set in a concentration camp.

As opera-goers, we as if on a cruise ship, passengers often looking out upon horrors.

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