The Passenger at the Israel Opera: When a former Auschwitz guard sees her prisoner

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The Passenger/Photo: Karl Forster

Pay attention, because this is one of the most important cultural events you can attend in Israel this year. We’re used to thinking of operas as stories of grand and exotic characters from days gone by. This time, the Israeli Opera’s next production brings us to a place that, whether from life or from our collective memory, is all too familiar. Lisa and Walter are on the upper deck of a ship on their way to Brazil, where he will enjoy a new job as a diplomat. Suddenly Lisa thinks she recognizes one of their fellow passengers as Marta, a woman she thought was dead. In fact, she was the woman’s guard some years previously, in Auschwitz.

Is the woman really Marta? Will Lisa approach her on the ship? What happened between them in the camp? The story of Leise and Marta was told by Zofia Posmysz, herself an inmate of Auschwitz, in a Polish radio play and later a book. The Passenger, an opera based on the book, composed by Mieczysław Weinberg, will now be performed in Israel for the first time.

The Passenger/Photo: Karl Forster

Meetings between surviving Lisas and Martas actually happened in Israel in the years after the war, when survivors who held Judenrat positions and those who didn’t both made aliyah and encountered each other again in Israel. Accounts tell about instances where police had to interfere. This is why the upcoming production of The Passenger is one of the most significant events the Israel Opera has brought us yet.

In the opera, the plot unwinds on two levels of the stage. As the inevitable postwar encounter plays out on the upper deck of the ship, the lower deck becomes the concentration camp, where we meet Marta’s fellow prisoners and Lisa’s Nazi coworkers. We also meet Tadeusz, Marta’s fiancé, who is made to play the violin for the enjoyment of the camp Kommandant. A game of power plays out between the three of them, while on the upper deck, Lisa confronts her demons.

The opera was originally composed in 1968 but the first fully-staged performance only took place in 2010, in a production by David Pountney. It’s this production that we will see this year. Pountney is a familiar name in Israel, having directed productions of Rigoletto, La Juive, Lucia di Lammermoor, and more.

Israeli singers will star alongside a few new guests. Ira Bertman will share the role of Marta with Hungarian soprano Adrienn Miksch in her Israel Opera debut. As Lisa we will hear our own Edit Zamir and Greek-American mezzo-soprano Daveda Karanas. Peter Marsh from the USA and David Danholt from Denmark will portray Walter, while American Morgan Smith will share the role of Tadeusz with Oded Reich. Conducting the opera will be another new name here: Steven Mercurio, formerly the music director of the Spoleto Festival and the principal conductor of the Opera Company of Philadelphia.

There will be 6 performances of The Passenger at the Israel Opera, starting April 30 and continuing until May 6. Post-performance “Opera Talkbalk” Q&A sessions promise to be particularly interesting due to the emotional and close-to-home historical significance of the plot. Pre-performance lectures and backstage tours will heighten the experience even more.

 

Tickets may be ordered from the Israeli Opera website here.

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