‘The Passenger’ Resurrects Long-Forgotten Jewish Composer

Houston Grand Opera tackles Mieczysław Weinberg’s Shoah-tinged work in a N.Y. premiere.

07/03/2014
Special To The Jewish Week
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Scene from Houston Grand Opera's production of Mieczyslaw Weinberg's "The Passenger." Lynne Lane
Scene from Houston Grand Opera's production of Mieczyslaw Weinberg's "The Passenger." Lynne Lane

Shmuel Weinberg survived the infamous pogrom at Kishinev, Moldova. His father and grandfather weren’t as lucky. In 1916 Shmuel walked to Warsaw, where he settled, and became a popular violinist and conductor of Yiddish theater music. When the Nazis invaded Poland many years later, Shmuel’s son Mieczysław Weinberg, a piano prodigy and budding classical composer, reversed his father’s path, walking east to the Soviet Union. His kid sister Esther set out with him but turned back after a day or two. It was the last time Mieczysław would see any of his family alive; they were transported to the concentration camp at Trawniki, where they were murdered by the Nazis.

Now the only surviving member of his family, Weinberg settled in Minsk, where he continued his musical career until the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and he was evacuated to Tashkent. Eventually, with help from his new father-in-law, the great Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels, and the support of Dmitri Shostakovich, he went to Moscow.

But Mikhoels’ support would prove a poisoned chalice as Stalin’s anti-Semitic fury triggered the state-sanctioned murder of the actor and numerous other Jewish anti-fascists. By February 1953, Weinberg himself would be arrested for allegedly being a part of the fabricated “Doctors’ Plot.” Despite pleas from Shostakovich to Stalin and Lavrenti Beria, Weinberg would have been executed too, but Stalin died in March and Weinberg was “rehabilitated.”

In short, the history of the Weinberg family is a capsule version of the plight of Eastern European Jews in the first half of the 20th century. Although Mieczysław Weinberg didn’t experience the death camps first-hand, he knew all too well the many pitfalls that could swallow him for no more reason than being a Jew. He brought that knowledge to bear in his music, most powerfully in his opera, “The Passenger,” which is having its New York premiere July 10, 12 and 13 as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.

“By going east, he got a double-whammy,” Simon Wynberg says. “Unlike the emigres who went west he had to deal with life under Stalin.”

Wynberg is the artistic director of the ARC Ensemble, the Toronto-based chamber group affiliated with the Royal Conservatory of Music, which will perform brief recitals of some of Weinberg’s instrumental music before the three performances of the opera. He is not, he says with a charming mock sadness, a relative of the composer: “I would love to have some kind of familial connection, but there are just too many Weinbergs around.”

What distinguishes Mieczysław Weinberg, he continues, is that despite the adversity he faced throughout most of his life, ranging from the various political obstructions to a long bout with Crohn’s disease, which finally killed him, is that “he still managed to produce extraordinary music.

“He had an almost demonic desire to keep writing. I think on some level it had to do with proving something, that through his survival he had to account for himself. To stop writing would have been a betrayal of the reason he was saved.”

Yet despite his prolificacy — Weinberg’s work runs to 150 opus numbers and that doesn’t count incidental music for theater and circuses — the composer was all-but-forgotten at the time of his death in 1996.

“He was a name in a music history class to me, and barely that,” says Patrick Summers, the artistic and music director of the Houston Grand Opera, whose acclaimed production of “The Passenger” will be on display next week. “Weinberg’s life was a perfect storm of obscurity — the time in which he lived, the tragedies his family suffered, even the artistic sponsorship of Shostakovich, which was both liberating and yet confining in many ways.”

Although a careful side-by-side study of their output reveals an intricate and often playful interchange of influences and inside jokes, and the difference in their ages was a mere 12 years, there was a tendency to characterize Weinberg as little more than a Shostakovich epigone.

Summers demurs. “He’s a unique voice.”

Both Summers and Wynberg point to the chamber music and “The Passenger” as evidence of Weinberg’s power and genius.

“All the string quartets are worth looking at, and there are 17 of them,” Wynberg says. “‘The Passenger’ is one of the few pieces about the Holocaust that has real substance and doesn’t use the events with the mawkish devices that you are so often reduced to.”

The opera is based on a novel and radio play by Zofia Posmysz, a Polish Catholic who survived Auschwitz herself. It is set in the late 1950s and recounts the story of a German woman, a former SS officer who had been assigned to the death camp, who thinks she recognizes a fellow traveler on a cruise ship as one of her erstwhile prisoners. The piece then moves seamlessly between the luxury of the cruise ship and the brutal minimalism of the death camp.

“‘The Passenger’ score is unique in musical history,” Summers says emphatically. “It’s a work of art that remembers the Holocaust without commenting upon it. It remembers it [through] authors who were actually there and experienced it first-hand. I admire enormously the anger that is in the score, the anger at society; I also admire its extraordinarily intelligence. It does not sentimentalize, it does not offer a moral, it does not tie anything up. It records a particular story that is very incendiary and very disturbing and very moving. It asks only one thing — it asks us to remember.”

At the very least, the Houston Grand Opera’s production of this beautiful, corrosive work allows us to remember its creator, at long last. n

The Passenger” will be performed by the Houston Grand Opera, under the direction of David Pountney and the baton of Patrick Summers, on Thursday, July 10, Saturday, July 12 and Sunday, July 13 at 7:30 p.m. at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Avenue, between 66th and 67th streets). The three performances will be preceded at 6 p.m. by performances of Weinberg’s chamber music by members of the ARC Ensemble; the chamber music is available only to ticketholders for “The Passenger.”

In addition to these performances, the Lincoln Center Festival will offer a free screening of Andrzej Munk’s film of Zofia Posmysz’s novel on July 8 at 6 p.m. in the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse (165 W. 65th St., 10th floor). The screening will be followed by a panel discussion with Posmysz and other Holocaust survivors. Also, on July 11 at 6 p.m., Posmysz joins Houston Grand Opera dramaturge Menna Hanna and Houston Grand Opera artistic and music director Patrick Summers for a free panel discussion in the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse. Tickets are required for these events.

For more information, phone CenterCharge at (212) 721-6500, or go to www.LincolnCenterFestival.org.

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