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Weinberg’s ‘The Passenger’ to debut at Lyric Opera

Updated: February 5, 2014 4:34PM



In an unusual joint announcement due to an odd conjunction of factors, Lyric Opera of Chicago Friday paired the unveiling of initial plans for a new production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle several years hence with word that the company will stage a recently rediscovered and highly-acclaimed Holocaust-related opera next season.

Lyric Opera will present the Midwest premiere of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s 1967-68 “The Passenger” in the 2014-2015 season with the same director and creative team that will create the new “Ring.”

Weinberg (1919-1996) was a prolific Polish-Jewish composer who escaped the Nazi Occupation and the Holocaust by fleeing Warsaw on foot for the Soviet Union in 1939. There he became a close colleague and friend with Dmitri Shostakovich but also suffered the caprices of Soviet control of the arts and frequent anti-Semitic policies which meant much of his work could never be publicly performed or recorded.

After a concert performance in Moscow in 2006, ten years after the composer’s death, the work was given its world premiere at the Bregenz Festival in western Austria in 2010 under the conception and direction of David Pountney, who will also create the Lyric Ring Cycle. The work has its U.S. premiere Friday night at Houston Grand Opera. Lyric general director Anthony Freud had planned the HGO Weinberg production while head of that company before coming to Chicago two years ago.

The story of a chance encounter between a survivor and her Nazi overseer on an ocean liner years after the war and its intense psychological aftermath, Weinberg based the opera on the 1962 novel of the same name by Zofia Posmycz, a Polish Roman Catholic from Krakow, who survived three years at Auschwitz after being arrested at age 18 for reading banned pamphlets.

Lyric’s general director Anthony Freud said, “As a son of a Holocaust survivor, I am instinctively suspicious of works of art ‘inspired’ by the Holocaust. Too many of them seem to me to be melodramatic, simplistic or sentimental. This piece is an exception.” Freud’s parents were Hungarian Jews who met in England after thewar. His mother survived imprisonment at Auschwitz. His father and paternal grandmother escaped continental Europe before the deportations started.

“The Passenger” will be presented at Lyric February-March 2015 in Polish, Russian, German, French, Yiddish and English (as developed by Pountney for the 2010 world premiere. The original libretto by Alexander Medvedev is in Russian.) Projected English supertitles will be used. HGO will present the work in English in both Houston and this July in New York, in a co-production with Park Avenue Armory and the Lincoln Center Festival.

The Chicago cast, to be “almost entirely different” from the current Houston production, will be announced on Jan. 27, along with full details of Lyric’s 2014-15 season.

Tickets for “The Passenger” will be available via Lyric subscription sales through the end of July. Individual tickets will go on sale in August.

— Andrew Patner



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