“This SS warden is also a woman. Does she also have humanity?” – Marta, The Passenger
Early into The Passenger, the Polish captive Marta asks this of her stern warden, Frau Franz. It is a question that is difficult to answer. The Passenger is based on Zofia Posmysz’s novel about her own experience at Auschwitz – a sombre topic. The first-hand pain of one of the few survivors of the death camps comes across in this emotionally-charged opera.
It is not how I anticipated my first trip to the opera. No Valkyries, no Figaro and no sweeping love songs. The first 20 minutes were a shock to the system as I let these stereotypical ideas go and embraced The Passenger for what it is.
Following the fates of prisoner and warden, we see how Annaliese Franz cannot forget the part she played in the death camps. She is proud to have served her country but haunted by the figures of her past, especially the spirit of Marta, a strong-willed Polish prisoner whom Franz often tormented. As an audience member you push yourself to find some way of sympathising with Franz but her behaviour is so repulsive that you can’t. Marta’s story is engaging and she is a strong character whom the other prisoners can gather around.
It feels strange writing the word prisoner. That one can hope for freedom after imprisonment is repeated often in the opera. These people have nothing to wait for but death. In the face of this horror they offer some amazing beauty. We witness Marta’s twentieth birthday and see her celebrate with singing and dancing, momentarily escaping imprisonment.
The Passenger is at its best when we are alone with Marta and the others in their quarters. The second half is loaded with heartbreaking sorrow, the pinnacle being the Russian folk song by Julia Sporsen. During her aria (a musical piece for solo voice focusing on emotional expression) the power of opera as an art form became apparent to me. Everything else fell away, I closed my eyes and got lost in the music. It was a taste of home when you are far from it, and fear you will never see it again. The hopelessness and the will to live on were captured in this moment. Nothing else mattered.
I wanted more moments like this. Often the characters would be singing about having a headache or wanting a pepsi-cola. Being my first opera I only have musical theatre to compare this to, and the latter’s choice to use dialogue to pass on basic information makes a lot more sense to me.
I had the opportunity to see The Passenger for free as part of a partnership between A Younger Theatre and ENO. I am very grateful to their kindness, and the ENO went to great lengths to make us feel welcome.
The Passenger was not what I expected, but that is a good thing. Opera shouldn’t be slavishly tied to the past, nor should any art form. ENO produces modern operas, in English, with the best production values I have ever seen on stage.
If you are thinking about going to the opera, sign up for Access All Arias and pick up a cheap ticket. When the soprano starts singing you’ll be glad you did.
Review and response written by Ryan Sullivan