By Mike Silverman
HOUSTON — It’s the darkest of operas, a powerful and unrelentingly grim work that dares to grapple with the horrors of the Holocaust through a musical descent into the hell that was Auschwitz.
The opera is “The Passenger,” and its composer was Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a Polish Jew who as a young man fled to the Soviet Union to escape the Nazis — the only member of his family to survive. He completed the opera in 1968 and considered it his most important work.
Yet for political reasons it had never been performed by the time Weinberg died in 1996.
In the past decade, it has finally been staged in Europe — to considerable acclaim — and just had its U.S. premiere at the Houston Grand Opera.
It’s the latest coup for a company known for producing new works, including the premiere of John Adams’ “Nixon in China” in 1987, Daniel Catan’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” in 1996 and Mark Adamo’s “Little Women” in 1998.
“We’re sent a lot of scores by a lot of people,” said Patrick Summers, the company’s artistic and music director. “This is the area of the world where people wildcat things,” he added, alluding to the Texas tradition of drilling for oil in untried spots. “So we’ve done a bit of that operatically speaking.”
In this case, the sender was David Pountney, the British director who gave “The Passenger” its first staged performances at the summer festival in Bregenz, Austria.
It’s Pountney’s production, using his English translation, that traveled to Houston and will also be seen at New York’s Lincoln Center Festival this summer and at Chicago’s Lyric Opera during the 2014-15 season.
Summers said in an interview he is familiar with some symphonies and chamber music by Weinberg, a prolific composer who was a disciple of Dmitri Shostakovich. But the score of “The Passenger” came as a revelation.
“I remember coming into the office on Monday after playing it on the piano over the weekend and saying, ‘We have to do this opera.’”
Why did it take so long for the work to have a hearing? Summers cites the opera’s focus on the persecution of Jews by the Nazis — a subject that was not welcomed in the post-war Soviet Union, where anti-Semitism was rife.
“Weinberg’s life was a perfect storm of obscurity,” Summers said. “Given the political circumstance he fled, the political circumstance he fled to, the mentorship of an extraordinarily famous and cumbersome person in Shostakovich, and the political times in which he matured.”
Critical response has been mixed, but most agree it’s a work worth hearing.