Mieczysław Weinberg’s The Passenger at the ENO

it was more than one step for the man by Leszek Golubinski on flickr"it was more than one step for the man" by Leszek Golubinski on flickr

Back on Monday the 19th of September Will & I attended the opening night of ENO’s production of The Passenger, Mieczysław Weinberg’s first opera. It was amazing. Harrowing, but amazing. It’s based on a novel (sadly not available in English) by Zofia Posmysz which in turn is based on her own 1959 Polish radio play Passenger from Cabin Number 45.

Normally when you read opera critics they either talk about the music, the staging, the acting, the costumes, etc. This opera appears to be Marmite to critics – the reviews are varied indeed – and one perplexing theme is a debate as to whether writing and staging an opera set in wartime Auschwitz is valid, or wise at all? I don’t get this. Throughout our history we, as a species, have used storytelling and song to pass knowledge from one generation to another, so that important events that shape our understanding of the world and of ourselves are not forgotten. Surely then the Holocaust is exactly the kind of event we should write stories and music about? In my own experience it is often the story-telling from unexpected genres that brings the impact home. For example the children’s story The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne helped introduce my children to this subject and the graphic novel (i.e. comic book) Maus by Art Spiegelman is a shocking but insightful biography of his father, a Holocaust survivor. There are other more obvious reasons why both Posmysz and Weinberg should be allowed to write about Auschwitz: she was there and he lost his family to the Nazis. But even without that harsh heritage, surely anyone should be at liberty to explore what happened through story-telling and music?

I think so, and I’m excited to be returning this evening (with my wife Kate this time) to see the closing night. To find an opera that is so moving (and harrowing) tackling such necessary subjects in a thoughtful way is rare. And that’s without mentioning the music. I’d never heard of Weinberg but he is great – especially his writing for strings. If you are a Spotify user I’ve put together a playlist, roughly in opus number order, of all I could find there: http://open.spotify.com/user/dumbledad/playlist/5569eNo77PBA4EKsUOP3A6 His music is a weaving together of much that was important in twentieth century composition, and that seems a very modern (and accomplished) approach.

Roll on tonight!

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