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Jul 13, 2020 |
sacred_in_opera  |

Jewish Opera: Weinberg's "The Passenger" and Principal Artist Daveda Karanas

Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s first opera, "The Passenger," is a searing Holocaust story, based on real life events. It was first presented in a radio play, "The Passenger from Cabin 45," and later recreated as an autobiographical novel by the author Zofia Posmysz (b. 1923), herself a World War II resistance fighter and camp survivor. It was Dmitri Shostakovich who discovered and shared Posmysz’ book with Weinberg, and later proclaimed his opera "The Passenger" a masterpiece.

The composers had been colleagues and friends for many years after Weinberg’s escape from the Nazi regime in Poland to Minsk in Russia, and later, his subsequent re-location to Tashkent in Central Asia. (His family was not so fortunate; Weinberg was the only one to survive the Holocaust.) The novel was adapted for the operatic stage by the Russian librettist Alexander Medvedev. Although the opera was finished by Weinberg in 1968, it was not seen until 2010, when the opera received its first staged performance, in Russian, at the Bregenzer Festival in Austria. Since that memorable premiere, The Passenger has received its American and British premieres at Houston Grand Opera in 2014 and the English National Opera in 2011. Mezzo soprano Daveda Karanas sang the principal role of Liese in The Passenger for the Chicago Lyric Opera (2015), Florida Grand Opera (2016), and the Israeli Opera in Tel Aviv (2019). She was slated to sing the role again in 2020 in Madrid, Spain, but like so many performances this year, the opera has been postponed due to COVID 19 concerns.

Daveda’s experience singing the role of Liese, a former SS guard at Auschwitz, has been one of the seminal experiences of her life as an artist. I met the mezzo soprano in 2018, when we both presented and performed at the Song Collaborators Consortia, shortly before she was to fly to Israel to perform in another production of The Passenger for Israeli Opera. Karanas, a Louisiana native of Greek ancestry, presented an impressive lecture recital for SCC, the American premiere of Weinberg’s opus 50 songs, Beyond the Border of Past Days. My interest was immediately piqued; beyond a couple of small instrumental pieces, I was unfamiliar with Weinberg’s work, and certainly not with any of his songs. In addition to her dynamic singing career, Karanas is a scholar and champion of the vocal music of lesser known composers of the Holocaust, including Ilsa Weber, Viktor Ullman, and Pavel Haas. I remember her excitement as she prepared to sing the role of Liese again, this time in Tel Aviv, grateful that she was willing to share with me her experience with this work.

Languages have been a fluid factor in The Passenger. It has always been a polyglot experience; Weinberg thought of Auschwitz as a “cosmopolitan hell.” So, the concept of a variety of languages- French, Yiddish, Polish, German, Russian, Czech, and English- shared by the cast in The Passenger was part of the composer’s and librettist’s original vision. Daveda has sung her role every time in German, but the chorus has sung in a variety of languages, singing in Hebrew in her most recent experience with Israeli Opera. A particular touching moment in the opera for her was an exchange between two prisoners, one French, one Russian, teaching each other phrases in their respective languages.

The story begins on board a luxury liner, where Liese and her husband, a German diplomat unaware (until this point in time) of his wife’s horrific past, are travelling to Brazil for Walter’s newest appointment. Liese hears a voice she had thought was dead, that of an Auschwitz prisoner, Marta, and begins to relive her past in the concentration camp, where she terrorized Marta and other prisoners. The opera happens on two distinct physical levels, the present journey on the ocean liner, taking place on the upper level, and the past, which happens in Auschwitz on the lower level.

Daveda is a singer who possesses not only a phenomenal dramatic instrument, but is committed to doing due diligence while preparing a role, even, for this role, travelling to Poland to visit Auschwitz. There she met with a guide, one-on-one, for two days, an experience that deeply informed and shaped her experience. To inhabit a role as completely as she has, personifying a character with whom the audience may feel very little empathy, and yet to create a fully fleshed-out human being, displaying hubris, shame, and fear, would be difficult for any singer. To this day, Daveda continues to engage with the enormous challenge of singing Liese. She recounts the extraordinary experience of performing it in Israel, where the sense of emotional engagement with the audience was a different experience than the same one in the United States.

Daveda Karanas and Brandon Jovanovich
in The Passenger at Lyric Opera of Chicago (2015)


Her six-week rehearsal period in Israel was life-changing for this mezzo. (Daveda loved the rehearsal schedule, where Shabbat, a time of Sabbath rest from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, was built into the company’s calendar.) For one of the final performances, the principals in the opera were asked to participate in a sort of informal “talk back” with the audience. These talks, common for opera companies to employ when presenting new productions on the mainstage, were different in Tel Aviv. This time, the audience spoke as much as did the performers. Daveda tells me she will never forget their testimonies, many of whom had experienced the Nazi death camps themselves, and all of whom were deeply affected by The Passenger. Her experience with the chorus in the Israeli Opera production, almost all of whom were Jews, was a fresh source of insight for the singer. At times, she said that she had to live with the knowledge that the line between loathing of her character and for Daveda herself was sometimes blurred.

The two final scenes of the opera have been perhaps the most memorable, intense and sometimes excruciating of Daveda’s career thus far. The penultimate scene is a harrowing “concert”, where Marta’s lover, Tadeusz, plays a command performance for the camp commandant. He is ordered to play a banal waltz, beloved by the commandant, and instead, defiantly plays the chaccone in D minor by J.S. Bach. His violin is smashed on the train tracks, and he is beaten and dragged away to his death, for which Liese knows she was responsible. The final scene is an aria sung by Marta, Liese’s former victim, who ultimately triumphs over her tormentor (whether this scene happens in reality or only in Liese’s mind, or whether Marta is even physically present on the ship, we do not know.)  Daveda’s choice to stand motionless, face forward, and to listen as Marta sings, makes her supremely vulnerable in that moment. Marta’s words are not words of forgiveness:

If one day your voices should. . .. if they should fall silent . . .
If they should fall silent, then we are all extinguished.
I hear you: “Do not forgive them, never ever.”
Katya, Katuscha, and you, Vlasta . . .
Hannah, Ivette, and you, my Tadeusz.
I swear, I swear I will never, I will never forget you.

Alex Ross, in his 2011 New Yorker review of a Lincoln Center performance, describes it as, “a work of concentrated power that outweighs most other attempts to dramatize the Holocaust” and  “a study in the nuances of complicity, with the guard [Marta] a woman not wholly evil but in no way good.” Ultimately, the music and the message of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger is an artistic creation which confounds comfortable spiritual truths.


About our Contributor


Kathleen Roland is a highly regarded concert soloist and specialist in the music of the 20th and 21st century. She has been a featured singer with many music festivals, including the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, the Britten-Pears Institute and the Tanglewood Music Festival. She has appeared frequently with the Grammy award-winning Southwest Chamber Music Society of Los Angeles, and with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at Disney Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. Dr. Roland is a Fulbright scholar, and an American Scandinavian Foundation grantee. She is an associate professor at the Setnor School of Music, Syracuse University. She is the music reviewer for the NATS Journal of Singing, assistant editor of NOA’s Opera Journal, and is the author of an anthology of Swedish art song, Romanser: 25 Swedish Art Song with Guide to Lyric Diction. Her current book project is a Performance Guide to the Songs of Jean Sibelius.