The Passenger

Mieczysław Weinberg

Opera in two acts, eight scenes and an epilogue
Libretto: Aleksandr Medvedev after Zofia Posmysz
A multilingual version
Co-produced by: Bregenzer Festspiele, English National Opera, Teatro Real, Madrid

An opera about Auschwitz seemed unimaginable. And yet… It was composed by Mieczysław Weinberg, a Polish-Jewish Varsovian who lost his family in a death camp and of whom the opera’s director David Pountney said that he spent his life writing music honouring the memory of his murdered relatives. Weinberg’s inspiration was Zofia Posmysz’s novel The Passenger (1962). The writer was a camp survivor. The decision to testify to the atrocities of the Holocaust was an obvious one for her. The Passenger describes a voyage on a luxury ocean liner during which a Polish woman called Marta recognizes in the elegant Liese an SS overseer from Auschwitz (the German woman has a real-life name: Annelise Franz). Following the plot, Weinberg’s music is diverse, realistic and symbolic at the same time: different when it accompanies conversations on the sunlit deck of the ship as the orchestra plays dance music for the passengers, and different when the hell of Auschwitz unfolds below deck. The camp prisoners are of different nationalities, so their solo singing as well as the seven-voice Song of Life and Death are multilingual. The Requiem of the Black Wall intoned by the prisoners and the bell, Bach’s Chaconne and the music played by the camp orchestra, all resonate here. Weinberg’s The Passenger, finished in the Soviet Union in 1968, could not be staged there because the plot was too reminiscent of Soviet labour camps. It was not until 2006, after the composer’s death, that a concert performance took place in Moscow. Staging an opera about Auschwitz seemed impossible? And yet… It was produced in 2010 by David Pountney. First was the Bregenzer Festspiele and Warsaw, then London, Houston, New York, Chicago, Detroit and Florida. Everywhere and every time: the stage is cut in half with light and sound. Merry, affluent Europe. And the hell of the Holocaust. Its memory lives on. The world cannot forget.




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    Act I

    The early 1960s, on an ocean liner. Watching over the scene is a chorus who sometimes take part as prisoners, passengers or officers, and sometimes are merely onlookers from another time, as are we.

    Scene one

    A German diplomat, Walter, and his young wife, Lisa, are on the way to Brazil where he will take up a diplomatic post. Suddenly, she sees a fellow passenger who she thinks she recognises, except that she knows that person to be dead. Under the shock of this encounter, she reveals to her husband for the first time that she was an SS overseer in Auschwitz. The revelation is a crisis for both of them. 

    Scene two

    In the camp, we learn that the Passenger is Martha, a Polish prisoner who Lisa Franz, the overseer, has marked out as someone who could help control the other prisoners. 

    Scene three

    In the female barracks, we meet women from every corner of Europe brought together in this cosmopolitan hell. A suspected Russian partisan, Katia arrives from a brutal interrogation, and the Kapo finds a note in Polish which may implicate her. Lisa orders Martha to read it, and Martha coolly renders it as a love letter – as if to her own fiancée, Tadeusz, who she believes is also a prisoner. Back on the boat, Lisa and Walter try to come to terms with this new background to their relationship. 

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    Act II

    Scene four

    Under Lisa’s supervision the women are sorting belongings looted from the prisoners. An officer arrives demanding a violin. The Commandant has ordered a concert at which his favourite waltz should be played by one of the prisoners. Lisa produces a violin, but the officer says he will send the prisoner himself to collect it. The prisoner is Tadeusz. He and Martha have a brief scene of recognition before Lisa interrupts them. She allows them to continue their contact, hoping to capitalise on this ‘kindness’ later. 

    Scene five

    Lisa confronts Tadeusz in the workshop where he produces silver ornaments to order for the SS officers. One is a Madonna which Lisa recognises as Martha. Lisa offers Tadeusz the chance to meet Martha, but Tadeusz refuses. He does not want to be in Lisa’s debt.

    Scene six

    In the female barracks it is Martha’s birthday. She sings a song about being in love with death. Lisa interrupts and tries to goad Martha by telling her that Tadeusz turned down a chance to see her, but Martha remains unmoved: if that is what Tadeusz decided, he was right to do so! Yvette tries to teach an old Russian woman French, and Katia sings about Russia. Suddenly, guards burst in: it is selection time. A list of numbers is broadcast, and one by one various prisoners are taken away. Lisa tells Martha that it is not her turn yet: she will arrange for her to witness Tadeusz’s concert. 

    Scene seven

    Back on the boat Lisa and Walter have come to a new understanding: even if the Passenger is Martha, they are determined to brazen it out, and decide to join the dancing in the Salon. Lisa is however horrified when The Passenger approaches the band, apparently to make a request, and they start to play the commandant’s waltz. 

    Scene eight

    Back in the camp it is time for the concert, and all the officers and prisoners are assembled. Tadeusz, however, does not play the waltz, but something else. The scene breaks up in uproar as his violin is smashed and he is dragged off to the death cells. In the last scene, we are left with Martha and her memories, and her longing that all who suffered should not be forgotten.


  • Patron of Teatr Wielki - Polish National Opera

  • Partners of Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera

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