Unfading Voices: The Many Languages of The Passenger

ROB_8101_photo-credit-RSZBy Michael Yashinsky

When the curtain rises on The Passenger, Soviet-Jewish composer Mieczysław Weinberg’s memory opera of the Holocaust, a former Nazi guard at Auschwitz and her husband are en route to a new life in Brazil. The man sings jubilantly, piercing the sea air with his tenor: “Das Ufer in der Ferne ist nicht mehr zu sehn.  Und wir sind ganz allein, ganz allein” [The faraway shore can no longer be seen.  And we are all alone, all alone.]

Sung as it is in German, the lines echo the Nazi ideals of superiority and separation.  He and his wife are rarefied people, alone at the top.  Meanwhile, other passengers drift to and fro behind the couple.  A waiter soon comes forward to offer drinks.  An audience of hundreds watches them from the seats of the opera house.  These two are clearly not alone, much as they would like to be.  Nor do only people surround them.  They are soon closed in by the haunting, insisting echoes of the past, the voices of the concentration camp.

In Michigan Opera Theatre’s production of the opera, which uses a multilingual version of the libretto, those voices float to us in the characters’ native languages—seven in total, surely more than in any other opera in the standard repertory.  After the opening aboard the ship, we descend into the memory of the guard, the barracks of Auschwitz.  Women prisoners murmur to each other in the dark.  German gives way to the caresses of French, the rich stew of Polish and Russian and Czech, the homey poetry of Yiddish.

In one quietly moving scene, the French teenager Yvette teaches a fellow inmate, the middle-aged Russian Bronka, a lesson in her native language.  “When you have finally reached Dijon,” Yvette sings, assuring Bronka she will bring her to meet the girl’s family once they are liberated, “you will have to speak French or they’ll laugh at you.”  And she proceeds to teach her conjugations, in a bright voice full of impossible hope, “Je vis, tu vis, elle vit,” insisting that Bronka repeat after her.  “I live, you live, she lives.”

The opera presents us something like a historical photograph, refracted through art and through memory.  There, in that “graveyard of the world,” men, women, and children came as captives from wooden shtetls and grand cities, from Western and Eastern Europe, from mansions and orphanages.  They spoke in every language of Nazi-occupied Europe, and struggled to understand each other and their overseers.  So it was in Auschwitz, and so it is in this astonishing opera, which prompts us all to reflect on the present as we hear testimony, in so many tongues, of the horrors of the past.  In its internationalism, it may speak more directly to us, the people of Detroit, who come from every land, who represent every color and creed, who speak so many languages so beautiful and so varied.  Detroit’s International Institute covers 93 ethnicities represented in the metropolitan area, many of whose communities came to America seeking refuge from oppression and strife all over the world.

Weinberg, the librettist Alexander Medvedev, and the writer of the original story Zofia Posmysz (herself a survivor of Auschwitz), chose as an epigraph for their opera the words of the French poet Paul Éluard, “As the echo of her voice fades away, we also fail and fade.”

That the voices of the Holocaust’s victims may not so fade, the creators of The Passenger gave us an opera rich with sound and memory, its characters speaking to us in their multiplicity of languages.  Seventy years since the liberation of Auschwitz, sufferers of persecution like them cry out still today.

Let us listen.