HGO’s Arresting American premiere: Weinberg’s The Passenger

Photo by Lynn Lane

A beautiful thing is not always easy to watch. Houston Grand Opera opens the new year with the American premiere of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger –a story that moves from a pristine ocean liner to an austere scene in Auschwitz. The program notes describe it, aptly, as “draining” and “unrelenting.” Even so, I noticed more people stayed to watch the final act of The Passenger than had lasted in the more digestable Die Fledermaus earlier this season. There’s a lot of talent and passion behind HGO’s production:  for such a traumatic narrative, it proved aesthetically arresting.

A tattered black curtain opens on a bright, white ocean liner where Liese, a former SS officer, catches a glimpse of another passenger. Her husband Walter, a German dignitary, confronts his panicked wife, and she confesses her past and her fear that this passenger might have been her prisoner from Auschwitz. The scene moves back in time to Auschwitz where a doomed love story between two prisoners, Marta and Tadeusz, ends with a wrenching aria about forgiveness, forgetting, and everlasting memories of suffering.

The singing is superb. As Liese, Michelle Breedt is an example of what a mezzo-soprano should sound like: warm in her lower register and rich at the top of her range without ever sounding strained. Soprano Melody Moore, singing the part of Marta, has depth behind her voice that was necessary to portray this character. Her final aria was exquisitely controlled, yet emotionally unbarred. Making his HGO debut in the role of Tadeusz, baritone Morgan Smith made me wish Weinberg had written more for Tadeusz. While some baritones’ timbre can easily become muddled, Smith’s voice rang out consistently with strapping purity.

The visual is divine. Hats off to the creative team behind this production. The stage is divided between the stark silver chrome of the ocean liner above and the dark dismal reality of a concentration camp below, making the quick shifts in time smooth. Lighting Designer Fabrice Kebour deserves special accolades. Rows of spotlights moved like a grid accented by fog that set, rather incredibly, the emotional stage behind the visual. It was class to the core: there was nothing that looked like kitsch, which is more than I can say for the music.

Weinberg’s score is not great. The music that situates the ocean-liner aurally is best described as something that is supposed to resemble jazz. When time shifts back to Auschwitz, the score looks to folk music and Yiddish motifs that feel over-determined. It seemed a bit clever that the strings moved in parallels when the prisoners sang their personal stories, but the score felt overworked in its representation of the narrative, and missed, somehow, setting the characters apart musically in their arias.

In no way did this reflect poorly on the orchestra, though. Conductor Patrick Summers was more animated and enthusiastic than I’ve seen this season. The strings melted the air, especially in the reduced chamber moments. Walking bass and saxophone, despite the lackluster score, managed to insert a disconcerting peppiness to contrast with the horrifying reality of Auschwitz.

Finished in 1968, it’s taken a while for The Passenger to see the stage. Violent scenes, like when a female prisoner is brutally beaten by a group of male SS officers, do not make for light entertainment. While the score and libretto are flawed, the opera stands as an important cultural piece and opens up a narrative that is hard to watch, let alone discuss in an artistic medium. On leaving, I admit I felt frustrated by Weinberg’s score until I noticed a woman still staring at the stage with tears running down her cheeks. Despite the opera’s structural flaws, HGO’s skillful execution of The Passenger calls for pause.


The Passenger runs January 18 – February 2. For information and tickets, visit Houston Grand Opera’s website.



“It’s Dynamite!”: Ashley’s Mixed Blessings, Indiana at Roulette

Although I should expect it by now, the voice in Robert Ashley’s compositions always catches me unaware and unprepared. Last week, I took a quick trip to New York to hear his latest work at Roulette on Wednesday, December 11. A world premiere, Ashley’s Mixed Blessings, Indiana threw the voice as an instrument onto new compositional ground, continually growing in urgency and building in layers until a burst of light and sound brought closure, showing yet again why Ashley is a foremost composer of our time.

The Swiss trio Ensemble Tzara performed Ashley’s composition, which was bookended by David Sontòn’s La metta da fein and Timothy McCormack’s Interfacing with the Surface, both US premieres. In the middle of these exceptional instrumental pieces, Ashley’s use of the voice was especially set off—to hear a performer’s voice, suddenly, changed my perception of the whole concert. The trio is made up of horn player Samuel Stoll, cellist Moritz Müllenbach, and synthesizer player Simone Keller. Although Ashley’s use of voice tends toward the emotionless, hearing each performer’s voice added a sense of the human to a radically electronic, futuristic sound.

Open, sustained notes in cello and synthesizer began the piece, acting as a foundation for the first vocal part. As the work progressed, all three performers rotated in 16 sequences of speak-singing at the microphone in the center, continuously shifting the instrument color and voice timbre. Understated rhythm from the synthesizer, especially, added texture to the underlying chords.

Ashley created the text from a random set of leaflets advertising books in today’s trivial American literature. The resulting hissing and cracking of consonants was the Rhaeto-Romanic translation of book titles, authors, abstracts, hard- and soft-cover numbers, e-book numbers, and empostazium labels from the randomly-selected set of leaflets. At the first instance of the heavily accented “E S B N”  and “W W W punckt!” I heard a ripple of laughter, but the performance took a more serious turn with a lighting shift from soft blue to green that marked Keller’s first turn at the microphone.

Because the voice plays such an intricate role in Ashley’s compositions, the choice of performer—the individual timbre of a voice—is critical. Not just anyone can perform a given part. Each performer in Ensemble Tzara had a distinct, select tone that danced over the heavy language. The initial switch from Stoll to Müllenbach, for instance, felt drastic. Stoll spat out words vengefully, while Müllenbach spoke calmly in a profound, monotone voice that slowly developed into a more urgent tone conjuring visions of enchantment or incantation.

Stoll and Müllenbach took several turns at the microphone before Keller did, adding a sense of intentionality to her voice. Once all three voices were in the mix, rotations happened more quickly, more seamlessly. The lighting shifted at what felt like a faster rate until a marked change to red at the end. The sequences began to blend, somehow, coming together finally (but remarkably, I had to remind myself, still remaining separate) in a genius, closing chord.

The following night I caught Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the Met—naturally a drastic change from Ashley’s work, but I found myself thinking more about Mixed Blessings, Indiana than listening to the supple soprano voice of Marina Poplavskaya. I will never forget the first Ashley opera I encountered, That Morning Thing, and how it changed my perception of opera as a genre that can be familiar, approachable, unpretentious, and overall, deeply American. As I left Lincoln Square, the last thing I heard at Roulette the night before coalesced: Ashley buoyantly asserting across the theatre “It’s dynamite! It’s retro-disco!”


Check out press pieces, videos of Ashley’s work (including my favorite, That Morning Thing), his biography, info about upcoming performances, and almost anything else you might want to know about Ashley at his website: robertashley.org