Conductor Steven Mercurio has tackled plenty of tough projects in his career, but Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s opera “The Passenger” posed a uniquely emotional challenge.
An opera about the Holocaust can do that.
Mercurio found that he couldn’t spend more than three hours at a time learning the score.
“Concentrating on life at Auschwitz was very fatiguing,” he says. “It was so disturbing that it weighed heavily on me, so I never worked on it at night because it would keep me up.”
While preparing it, Mercurio also was working on Verdi’s fire-and-brimstone laced “Requiem.”
“It was the only time I considered the ‘Requiem’ light,” Mercurio says. “It was like a sorbet after a heavy meal.”
“The Passenger,” opening Saturday and presented by Michigan Opera Theatre, takes place in two locations and time periods. One is set during World War II at the harrowing Auschwitz concentration camp. The other unfolds aboard a ship in the 1960s when a German diplomat named Walter sets sail with his wife, Liese, to take a new post in Brazil.
Unbeknownst to him, Liese was an SS guard at Auschwitz. She’s shocked when she recognizes a fellow passenger, Marta, who was imprisoned at Auschwitz and whom Liese thought had been executed.
In the staging, there are two tiers, with the ocean liner on top and the concentration camp below, with frequent fluctuations between past and present.
The opera was written in 1968 by Weinberg (pronounced VINE-berg), a Polish Jew who escaped on foot to Russia after the Nazi invasion of Poland. His parents and a sister died in the camps. Anti-Semitism and a pronounced pro-Russian bent among Soviet authorities kept the work suppressed for more than 40 years.
It was not until 2010 in Austria that the opera received its first staged performance. In 2014, it was performed in the country in Houston. “The Passenger” is a MOT premiere.
“Weinberg never saw it performed, which is criminal,” says Mercurio, who also will conduct the work in April when it’s presented by the Florida Grand Opera. “But the Soviets just were not going to mount an opera like this written by a Polish Jew.”
Weinberg got the idea to write the opera when his friend and fellow composer, Dimitri Shostakovich, told him about a radio play that was turned into the novel “Passenger from Cabin Number 45.” It was written by Zofia Posmysz, a Polish Catholic woman who had been interned at Auschwitz for distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets.
Earlier this year, Posmysz, now 92, joined the cast’s curtain call when the opera was performed in Chicago.
If you’ve never heard of Weinberg (1919-96), don’t feel like a philistine. Despite having written seven operas, 22 symphonies and loads of chamber pieces, Weinberg isn’t even mentioned in many classical-music encyclopedias and biographical dictionaries.
“The No. 1 question I got when I told people what I was working on was: ‘Who, or what, is a Weinberg?’ ” Mercurio says.
Weinberg’s obscurity, the conductor surmises, has to do with the fact that he didn’t have the resources to come to the West.
“During World War II, if a composer had the means, he came to the West and became well-known. Look at Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, Schoenberg or Korngold.
“But Weinberg went east to Russia, where composers had a limited public profile if their music was deemed too individual.”
Despite the government’s disapproval of his music, Weinberg persevered and accomplished something another famous composer regretted not doing.
Mercurio recalls a lunch he had with Leonard Bernstein in 1990.
“I asked him, ‘Lenny, is there anything you wish you had written but haven’t done it yet?’ He said, ‘Yes, a stage work about the Holocaust.’ ”
Bernstein never wrote it because he died seven months later.
“I don’t think he even knew of ‘The Passenger’ then,” Mercurio says. “This work has exactly the kind of intensity he wanted to deliver about the subject.”
George Bulanda is a Metro Detroit-based freelance writer.
Opens 7:30 p.m., Nov. 14.
Runs through Nov. 22.
Detroit Opera House
1526 Broadway, Detroit.
Tickets: $29-$149. 313-237-SING