Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric premiere of THE PASSENGER in 2014-15 season

For immediate release: 
January 17, 2014


THE PASSENGER   by Mieczysław Weinberg 
to receive Lyric Opera of Chicago premiere in 2014-15 season.

Powerful Holocaust opera to be performed in multiple languages 
as in its 2010 world-premiere performances at Bregenz Festival.

Sir Andrew Davis, conductor
David Pountney, director
Johan Engels, set designer 
Marie-Jeanne Lecca, costume designer 
Fabrice Kebour, lighting designer 
Michael Black, chorus master 
Cast for The Passenger to be announced January 27

The same creative team will collaborate on Lyric's new Ring  cycle, 
which begins in 2016-17 season

Lyric Opera of Chicago will present the company premiere of The Passenger,  the recently rediscovered opera by Mieczysław Weinberg, as part of the company's 60th anniversary season, general director Anthony Freud announced today.

A powerful and haunting work composed in 1967-68 about the chance encounter of a Holocaust survivor and her Nazi overseer, The Passenger will be seen at Lyric in the acclaimed David Pountney production, which had its world premiere at the 2010 Bregenz Festival in Austria. It has since been presented in Warsaw (2011) and London (2012).

For the Lyric Opera of Chicago premiere in February-March 2015, The Passenger will be performed in Polish, Czech, Russian, German, French, Yiddish, and English, as envisioned by Pountney for the world premiere in Bregenz. (The original libretto by Alexander Medvedev is in Russian.) Projected English translations will be used. The cast for Lyric's production will be announced on January 27, along with full details of Lyric's 2014-15 season.

The Passenger  will have its U.S. premiere on Saturday, January 18, 2014, at Houston Grand Opera and will subsequently be seen in a co-presentation by Park Avenue Armory and Lincoln Center Festival in New York City July 10-13, 2014. (The Houston performances were planned by Freud during his tenure there as general director.) Those performances will be given in English in a translation by Pountney. Lyric has engaged an almost entirely different cast than will be seen in Houston.

About the Composer and the Opera

Polish-Jewish composer Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-96) fled Warsaw for Russia on foot in 1939, the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust. He and fellow composer Dmitri Shotakovich became lifelong friends, as well as mutual admirers and influencers of each others' work. Weinberg suffered further persecution under Stalin in the Soviet Union; many of his compositions were banned or were never performed publicly, including The Passenger, his first opera. He left more works than practically any other 20th century composer - more than 150, including 26 symphonies, 28 sonatas, seven operas, and scores for cinema and theater, according to a documentary about the opera's world-premiere production.

Weinberg based The Passenger on the 1962 novel of the same name by Zofia Posmycz,  a Polish Catholic from Krakow, who survived three harrowing years at Auschwitz after being arrested at age 18 for reading banned pamphlets. Years later, in Paris, she heard a female tourist screaming in German, and for a shocking moment thought it was her Nazi overseer. The chance encounter led Posmycz to wonder how she would react to an actual meeting. In 1959 she wrote a radio play on the subject, followed by the 1962 novel. In The Passenger, it is the former overseer, Liese, who thinks she glimpses her former prisoner, Marta, on a ship from Europe to Brazil, where Liese's husband, a diplomat with no knowledge of her background, is accepting a post and where Liese hopes to escape her past. The encounter, real or imagined, triggers flashbacks that reveal past horrors but also the triumph of the human spirit. The libretto was written by Russian dramaturg Alexander Medvedev.

The resulting opera was never performed in Weinberg's lifetime; its concert premiere was in Moscow in 2006, and soon after came to the attention of stage director David Pountney,  the former intendant of the Bregenz Festival who is currently executive and artistic director of Welsh National Opera. "The more I heard and discovered what this man had written, the more enthusiastic I became," he recalled in a 2010 documentary. Pountney created the world-premiere production with set designer Johan Engels, costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca, and lighting designer Fabrice Kebour. They spent time at Auschwitz with Posmycz  to ensure the authenticity of their work.  At 86, she joined the cast and creative team in the world-premiere curtain call, representing the creators of The Passenger.

The Houston performances were scheduled while Anthony Freud was still general director there, after he saw the world-premiere performance in Bregenz, Austria. "One of the things that impressed me so profoundly about The Passenger when I first saw it was how extraordinarily complex and mature an exploration it is of both victim and perpetrator," said Freud, who is the son of an Auschwitz survivor.  "The guilt of Liese, the perpetrator, is conveyed with tremendous impact. Fundamentally the piece is about the spirit of Marta, and the triumph of humanity against inconceivable odds. It is enormously gratifying to be able to share this powerful work with Lyric audiences in 2015, which marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. 

"The music is accessible, immediate, and highly dramatic - and at times extraordinarily lyrical and beautiful," Freud added. "It's a large-scale spectacular score with a mid-century Russian aesthetic. Shostakovich and Weinberg were friends and contemporaries, and Shostakovich's influence is evident in the score of The Passenger."

As Pountney noted in the 2010 documentary, "Weinberg tried to plumb the depths of Auschwitz with his musical language. He does this clearly, with no sense of tragedy, and I find this very important. There is no sentimental self-pity in the piece."

The same artistic team responsible for The Passenger is collaborating on a new Ring cycle for Lyric Opera of Chicago, which will be presented starting in the 2016-17 season. Previously at Lyric, Pountney directed the company premiere/new production of Satyagraha by Philip Glass (1987-88) and the company premiere of Kurt Weill's Street Scene (2001-02). Engels made his company debut with Lyric's new production of Wagner's Parsifal earlier this season as set and costume designer. Lecca and Kebour will make their company debuts with The Passenger.                                      

The Lyric Opera presentation of The Passenger is generously made possible by Richard P. and Susan Kiphart, the Earl and Brenda Shapiro Foundation, Sidley Austin LLP, and Helen and Sam Zell.

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