Where: Chan Centre for the Performing Arts
When: Jan. 30–Feb. 1, 7:30 pm; Feb. 2, 2 p.m.
Tickets and info: From $11.50, tickets.ubc.ca
Opera fans have a chance to hear a neglected work by a major composer of the last century when Nancy Hermiston’s University of British Columbia Opera Ensemble mounts the first Canadian performance of Mieczysław Weinberg’s The Passenger.
The four performances are presented in conjunction with a symposium commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, curated by the UBC Modern European Studies Program.
Hold on a second. Who was Weinberg, and how on earth can we consider him one of the major composers of the last century?
The simple reason most of us don’t know about him is that he was the wrong person in the wrong place at a very wrong time. Despite daunting circumstances, Weinberg was a hard worker who produced music of considerable quality; only now, a century after his birth, is his work is becoming more widely known.
Born in Warsaw in 1919, Weinberg fled from the 1939 German invasion of Poland to the Soviet Union, settling first in Minsk, then Tashkent.
Dmitri Shostakovich became his mentor, friend, and, to some degree, protector. Weinberg finally settled in Moscow, but faced terrible obstacles as a Jew in Stalin’s USSR. His music was capriciously banned; he was put under surveillance and charged with anti-Soviet activity.
Though his reputation was rehabilitated following Stalin’s death, performances of his music were overwhelmingly domestic; and given western antipathy to much post-war Russian music, his work won few international champions during his lifetime.
Weinberg outlasted the Soviet era — just — dying in 1996. Today we are evaluating an important career which took place far removed from the limelight.
The Passenger, dating from the mid-1960s, was the first of Weinberg’s operas and is the piece that has enhanced his posthumous reputation.
He collaborated with Russian librettist Alexander Medvedev, who based his libretto on a 1959 Polish radio play by concentration camp survivor Zofia Posmysz.
British opera director David Poutney mounted the opera at the 2006 Bregenz Festival and introduced it to British audiences at the English National Opera. As Guardian critic Andrew Clements writes: “It tells the story of two women, Lisa and Marta, who meet on a transatlantic liner 15 years after Marta was a prisoner in Auschwitz where Lisa, now married to a German diplomat, was one of the SS guards. The action shuttles between the liner and the camp.”
The Passenger’s libretto is multi-lingual, though there will be English surtitles.
Hermiston says: “You will hear Polish, Russian, German, French, Czech, and English, plus a little Latvian, because people were sent to the death camps from all over Europe, every nationality. The musical content is just as varied, telling a story that is quite brutal, intense. Then you get these beautiful arias which are just heartbreaking.”
That such a momentous work addressing the horrors of recent history is being presented by a student company may seem extraordinarily ambitious. But Hermiston has always believed in a balanced-diet approach to major projects. Her singers do plenty of traditional repertoire, but learn contemporary works as well.
Given the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on Jan. 27, mounting the Canadian premiere of The Passenger is both timely and appropriate.
And, as Hermiston told me with considerable passion, “You would think after such a moral catastrophe we would have learned something.” Citing a litany of contemporary outrages from the news,she forcefully asserts: “This is absolutely the right thing for a university to present.”
“The students are very moved in rehearsal,” she notes, “and I remind them that there will be survivors of the Holocaust in the audience,” adding that life in Vancouver has been inestimably enriched by Holocaust refugees and survivors.
“So many of them donated generously to UBC in particular, and so will go on giving for generations.”
A work with the moral force of Weinberg’s The Passenger has the ability to be both cathartic and transformative for contemporary audiences.
“The message at the end is simply ‘Do not forget us.’” says Hermiston. “It’s our responsibility to make sure this horrible crime is not forgotten. Because ghastly things are still being done by human beings to other human beings.”