UBC Opera to premiere The Passenger at symposium Auschwitz 75

Premiering on January 30 at the Chan Centre, The Passenger is part of the larger symposium, Auschwitz 75, being held in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration camp in Poland.

The symposium itself has been organized collaboratively by UBC Opera Ensemble (UBC Music), the Department of central, eastern, northern European studies, members of the Witnessing Auschwitz Global Seminar Program and UBC Library. It is a four-day symposium, with performances of The Passenger each night between January 30 to February 2.

UBC Library is also housing a special exhibit in the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre between January 15 and February 28.

The opera was written in 1968 by Polish composer Mieczysław Weinberg, who at the time resided in the Soviet Union after fleeing the Nazis in 1939 from Warsaw. Weinberg’s biggest inspiration continued to be his family, all of whom perished in the concentration camps after being unable to make the journey to the Soviet Union.

“He was always trying to pay tribute to his family who lost their lives in Auschwitz,” explained Nancy Hermiston, director of the UBC Opera Ensemble and The Passenger.

The opera follows the journey of former Nazi SS officer Lisa on a ship to Brazil, who is haunted by visions of former prisoner Marta, whom she sent to her death when she worked as a guard in Auschwitz. The opera oscillates between the past and the present, showing the suffering faced by Marta and her fiancée Tadeusz and the guilt that hangs over Lisa now.

Luka Kawabata, a second- year master’s student in opera performance who plays Tadeusz, discussed the beauty of how Weinberg juxtaposes the leads and the chorus as well as how the composition takes audiences on a journey.

Telling the story through the perspective of a former Nazi woman is a way to grasp the duality of human beings, according to Hermiston.

“It shows the humanity of this person. No human is all good. We all have weaknesses. We have moments in which we are capable of things we may not think we are,” Hermiston said.

UBC Opera’s production of The Passenger came together through primary collaboration between Hermiston, UBC Music and Dr. Bozena Karwowska, the director of UBC’s Witnessing Auschwitz program. Together, they chose this timely occasion to tell a riveting and highly emotional story of the horrors of the past.

UBC Opera has a tradition of performing socially significant shows, like last season’s Silent Night that commemorated the end of World War One and the veterans of war. The Passenger hopes to reignite and continue fuelling conversations around human rights and social justice, especially because of the unjust conditions multitudes of people face all over the globe today.

There will also be an opportunity for people to tell their own stories at the symposium with a survivors’ panel scheduled on Monday, January 26.

“The piece is very timely for the world,” said Hermiston. “I hope people will remember, see what happened there and learn the lessons we should. We cannot let this happen. We have a responsibility to each other no matter where we’re from.”

The demanding emotional toll of performing in a show like this also does not go unrecognized.

While Kawabata has had experience playing an emotionally demanding role before in Silent Night, he is appreciative of the resources performers have been offered to help deal with the emotionality of the show.

“Your job is to make the audience feel something. You need to find the balance of feeling the emotion so you can convey it but not so much that you feel overwhelmed by it,” he said.

Hermiston talked about the high stakes of the production and the place of a university as the principal place of education. The critical thinking gained there can be a guiding force in holding leaders accountable and ensuring that atrocities that have occurred in the past do not repeat themselves.

“This is for you people — the younger generation, the future. You are the people that have to think about this and hold leaders accountable,” said Hermiston.

“Each of us has a responsibility for our democracy and our freedom. It is a principle that our university is founded on.”

Kawabata added, “What is art for rather than to provoke people? Nothing changes if you don’t change it.

“It’s going to be very special.”