SHATTERED PASSAGE: The challenge of presenting the Holocaust onstage

[from The New Yorker]

The idea that the Holocaust defeats attempts at artistic dramatization—that it constitutes, in Andreas Huyssen’s words, “unimaginable, unspeakable, and unrepresentable horror”—has a particular force in the world of music. While there are any number of symphonic and choral meditations on the Holocaust, operas on the subject are rather rare, not least because the larger-than-life gestures native to the genre can seem inapt. Furthermore, because of associations between Wagner and the Nazi regime, the very vocabulary of post-Wagnerian opera may appear to be implicated in the genocide.

Mieczysław Weinberg’s 1968 opera “The Passenger,” which the Lincoln Center Festival is set to present at the Park Avenue Armory, is not a flawless work, but it comes closer than any other extant opera to overcoming the challenge of placing the Holocaust onstage. For one thing, Weinberg, who came from a Polish-Jewish family, knew whereof he wrote; he fled from Poland to the Soviet Union in 1939, and his father, mother, and sister were all murdered by the Nazis. When the orchestra in “The Passenger,” heavily influenced by Shostakovich, presents an ironclad, destructive edge, one senses that Weinberg is working from firsthand impressions. At the same time, the libretto, which Alexander Medvedev adapted from a story by Zofia Posmysz, is not so much a direct dramatization of the Holocaust as a study in trauma and memory: on an ocean liner, a former Auschwitz overseer thinks she sees a survivor from the camp, and experiences a series of flashbacks. Finally, the question of music’s own role in the catastrophe is incorporated into the action. A wrenching scene toward the end, depicting a concert at the camp, pits Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor, for solo violin, against an overpowering orchestral mass. The lonely, lamenting notes of the Bach are snuffed out one by one.

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