In Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s opera — only recently discovered after having been suppressed for over 40 years — a West German diplomat, Walter (David Danholt), and his wife, Liese (Daveda Karanas), are ocean-bound for a new posting in Brazil. Unbeknownst to her husband, Liese once served as an SS officer in Auschwitz. There’s another woman (Adrienn Miksch) on the same cruise ship, a passenger whose mere existence haunts Liese. Guilt and denial, lies and truth, fear and courage, and love —they’re all here in an artistic and emotional experience you’ll never forget. Also featuring Marion Pop (Cyrano) and conducted by Michigan Opera Theatre veteran Steven Mercurio. According to John ven Rhein of The Chicago Tribune, The Passenger is “an experience in the theater that is not to be missed.”
Sung in Polish, German, Russian, French, Yiddish, Czech, and English, with projected English translations.
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An ocean liner sailing for Brazil in the early 1960s, with flashbacks to Auschwitz concentration camp in the mid 1940s.
Act I, Scene I
German diplomat Walter Kretschmer and his wife Liese are headed to Brazil for a three-year posting. In high spirits, they bid Germany and Europe farewell. Walter remarks upon Liese’s youth during the war years, and says Brazil will do her good. Suddenly, Liese blanches at the appearance of a passenger who resembles a prisoner from Auschwitz where, unbeknownst to her husband, Liese served in the SS. Flashing back to Auschwitz, an officer appears and orders Liese to regain her composure, calling her Aufseherin, the term for a female SS overseer. Back in her cabin, Liese tries to shake the fear that the woman on deck was a prisoner named Marta, whom she believed to have been executed at Auschwitz. She summons the ship’s steward and bribes him to look into the passenger’s identity. Walter joins his wife, ready to go dancing, but as they exit their cabin, the stranger appears in the hallway. Liese drags Walter back inside and confesses that she was an SS overseer at Auschwitz. Blindsided, Walter is furious. Liese admits she never told him of her past for fear of losing him. She tells him how she’d felt drawn to Marta, whose pride and contempt she longed to break. The steward returns, announcing the passenger in Cabin 45 is a British woman traveling alone to Brazil. The couple breathes a sigh of relief, though Walter wonders if there’s more to the story.
Act I, Scene II
A group of SS officers watches the female prisoners line up. The men boast they are making history at Auschwitz, purging the Third Reich of its enemies, but complain the killing isn’t efficient enough. At roll call, the prisoners’ numbers are called. The Chief Women’s Overseer and Liese talk about enlisting Marta to help manage the other prisoners. Marta doesn’t trust Liese and wonders what she wants from her.
Act I, Scene III
A transport of new prisoners arrives. An old woman raves that they are all about to go up the chimney as smoke. Marta and Krzystina try to calm everyone. Bronka prays for strength and protection for her family. Krzystina rails that God has forgotten them all, which Bronka and Yvette find blasphemous. The door crashes open and Katja, a Russian partisan, is thrown in. Marta calls for water and a candle. A Kapo finds a note in Polish that Katja brought in. Liese admires Marta’s control over her fellow inmates and, knowing her to be a Pole, orders her to read the note Marta recognizes it as a message between members of the resistance, but reads it as a love note, substituting the name of her own sweetheart Tadek (Tadeusz). Satisfied for the time being, Liese exits. Katja thanks Marta for saving her life. Back on the ship, Liese tells Walter she later discovered Marta’s lie. Walter remains silent as the curtain falls.
Act II, Scene I
Liese watches prisoners sort items confiscated from other prisoners: musical instruments, clothing, shoes, etc. An officer asks Liese to choose a violin so one of his prisoners can play the Kommandant’s favorite waltz. Liese finds an instrument, and the officer leaves, saying he’ll send the prisoner to collect it. When the prisoner appears, Liese points him to the violin and exits.The violin player is Tadeusz, Marta’s fiancé before she was imprisoned. They are stunned to see each other still alive. Marta says she must look ugly and worn, but Tadeusz says she is beautiful. They reminisce about their past life together but freeze when Liese returns. Tadeusz confesses that they were a couple, “in that world that still knows of engagements.” Liese insinuates that she will break the rules for them, and tears up the confiscated note before she exits again. Katja enters and warns the couple not to trust Liese. She tells Tadeusz that Marta saved her life by misreading the note Tadeusz had given her. A loudspeaker blares music that Tadeusz says is the Kommandant’s favorite waltz.
Act II, Scene II
Tadeusz reads a note from a member of the resistance: Kiev has been liberated from the Nazis. As Liese enters, he hides the note. She scrutinizes a medallion and recognizes the portrait engraved on it as Marta. Liese tries to entice Tadeusz to let her set up a meeting between him and Marta, but Tadeusz refuses. In another flash forward to the ship, Liese tells Walter that Tadeusz—in fact all the prisoners—were “blinded by hate.”
Act II, Scene III
The women congratulate Marta on her twentieth birthday. Marta reflects on what she would choose if God let her choose how and when she would die. There are gifts: a carrot and onion from Yvette, a scarf from Vlasta, and roses secretly delivered from Tadeusz. Liese enters and tells Marta that Tadeusz refused her offer to arrange a meeting with Marta; Marta replies she’s certain Tadeusz had good reason. Liese stalks out angrily. Yvette gives Bronka a French lesson, conjugating the verb “to live.” The women describe their longing for home. Katja sings a song of her grandmother’s. The loudspeaker blares numbers for the evening’s selection. A Kapo, Liese, and officers with machine guns appear to collect the women whom have been selected: Vlasta, Hannah, Yvette, and Katja among them. Katja urges her friends not to forget the dying or forgive the Germans. Marta faces off with Liese, who tells her she’ll be selected soon enough, saying she’s spared her to hear Tadeusz’s concert.
Act II, Scene IV
The steward informs Liese and Walter that though the passenger in Cabin 45 is a British citizen, she’s not English and may be Polish. Again, Liese defends her service at Auschwitz. They head to the salon, where Liese dances with the Captain while an elderly passenger teases Walter. The passenger from Cabin 45 requests a tune from the orchestra leader, who strikes up the same waltz that Tadeusz was ordered to perform—the Kommandant’s favorite. Liese and Walter are distraught, and Liese insists on confronting the passenger. She approaches, but then falls back in fear as the passenger stares her down.
Act II, Scene V
An officer orders Tadeusz to play the waltz. Instead, Tadeusz plays Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor. Before Tadeusz can finish the beautiful piece, an officer seizes and smashes the violin, and Tadeusz is dragged off to his death.
Marta vows to keep the memory of those murdered at Auschwitz alive: “If one day your voices should fall silent, then we are all extinguished.
– Courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago
with additional support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation