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As an opera based on a play by a concentration-camp survivor opens in London, its director talks about art’s at times uncomfortable relationship with the Holocaust


n Auschwitz survivor, Zofia Posmysz, visiting Paris 15 years after the war, hears the voice of one of her former prison guards

in the Place de la Concorde. This blood- freezing moment was the genesis of one of the most extraordinary operatic stories of the last century: The Passenger, based on the radio play and novel unleashed by that Parisian moment, with music by a forgotten Polish- Jewish composer who lived most of his life in the Soviet Union and died in Moscow in 1996, Mieczyslaw Weinberg. It sounds unlikely, but Weinberg may be about to take his place as one of the twentieth century’s most significant composers. The opera, finished in 1968, was finally pre- miered in Bregenz last year and the same wildly lauded production (staged by David Pountney) is to open at the Coliseum in London on 19 September. Weinberg was born in Warsaw in 1919 to a musical family which had already fled Tsarist pogroms in Kishinev. Eight years at the Conservatoire seemed destined to turn him into a piano prodigy, but everything changed with the Nazi invasion in 1939. The next day, Weinberg and his sister set off eastwards on foot; she turned back – her shoes were hurting her – and he never saw his family again: they were murdered in Trawniki camp. Weinberg made it to Minsk, where he studied compo- sition before being evacuated yet again in 1941 to Tashkent, along with many other Jews including the Yiddish-theatre actor Solomon Mikhoels, whose daughter Natalya Vovsi would become Weinberg’s wife. The influential Mikhoels was so impressed by Weinberg’s First Symphony, he sent the score to Dmitri Shostakovich, who recognised an extra - ordinary new talent and arranged for Weinberg to come to Moscow in 1943. The two composers became exceptionally close, personally and musically, to the point where Weinberg is dismissed in Russia now as a mere epigone of the older man. Certainly Shostakovich had an immense effect on Weinberg’s sound-world and musical imagin - ation, but the influence was mutual, a fact recognised by many in the 1960s and 1970s

when Weinberg was championed by Mstislav Rostropovich, David Oistrakh, Kirill Kondrashin and Emil Gilels. Before that, there had been more trouble: in 1948, Russia’s latest burst of anti-Semitism saw Mikhoels mur- dered by the Soviet secret police, and in 1953 Weinberg was arrested and imprisoned – briefly, since Stalin’s death in March precip- itated mass releases from the Gulag – on an imaginative charge of “conspiring to establish a Jewish state in the Crimea”. It was Shostakovich who brought Zofia

Posmysz’s novel to Weinberg’s attention, and it immediately caught the younger composer’s imagination: perhaps he would be able to atone for surviving where everyone else had not, and to memorialise his family. Posmysz, a Catholic girl from Cracow, was arrested aged 19 in 1942 for distributing leaflets advertising underground schools. In Auschwitz, she tried “never to be in the front row of any group” – often a fatal place to be – but one day she found herself there and by great fortune was picked out, not for execution but to work in the kitchens.

She became close to a guard, Aufseherin Anneliese Franz, and later worked as her accountant in the camp. She assumed Franz had died in the chaos of the war’s ending, when Posmysz herself took part in the “death march” from Auschwitz, ended up in Ravensbrück camp, was liberated by Americans and then, unimaginably, walked home to Poland through the Soviet lines. And in fact the voice in Paris was not Franz’s, but the moment prompted her to write the book – from the point of view of the prison guard: the scenario is reversed and the guard, on a liner to Brazil after the war, sees a former camp inmate on the boat and is moved to tell her past to her diplomat husband. The director, David Pountney, tells me:

“In an awful way, it’s like an intense, appalling kind of boarding-school drama, two young women in a close relationship. It doesn’t make any attempt to excuse Franz but it does try to understand her as a human, albeit a very delusional one: at one point Franz says: ‘I can’t understand why they hated us so much – after all, we did to make it better for them.’”

The Passenger in performance at the Bregenz Festival in 2010

Despite the Bregenz success, Pountney is

nervous about the whole notion of the Holocaust in art, something which often tends to the condition of kitsch or death-porn. “We’re inundated with books and films that reference it as a shorthand for raising the emotional temperature. It’s such an enormity, it narrows the responses you can have. Any kind of oper- atic emotional grandstanding would be excruciating, but Weinberg writes with enor- mous discretion and restraint and allows the story time to develop, with a sense of time- lessness in the barracks that captures the sense of hopelessness and things going on for ever.” Weinberg might still be languishing in obliv- ion but for an adventurous American publisher, Peermusic, which rescued his works from the ruins of the Soviet music publishing industry. “A leaflet about his music landed on my desk in Bregenz,” says Pountney. “They’d obviously sent out hundreds, but it seems mine was the only one which didn’t end up in the bin.” He tracked down a recording of the concert premiere, put on by the Stanislavsky Theatre in Moscow in 2006, met the librettist Alexander Medvedev, and became convinced he had found something of amazing value. Pountney also spent a lot of time with

Posmysz, the last of the protagonists still alive. “There was a scene in the opera I didn’t under- stand at first, a young man – the fiancé of Marta, which is the name of the Zofia char- acter – working in a workshop producing medallions; I couldn’t believe they were mak- ing jewellery there, but she said, ‘Oh yes, they were making things to order for the SS people from stolen silver and gold,’ then she started pulling on this chain: she still wears this medallion with the figure of Christ on it, made in Auschwitz …”

17 September 2011 | THE TABLET | 27

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