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."
The opera's libretto by Alexander Medvedev is adapted from a Polish radio play by Zofia Posmysz, a concentration camp survivor. Set 15 years after the war, it tells of a woman who had been a guard at Auschwitz and who thinks she recognizes a former prisoner while onboard a passenger ship. The sighting triggers her memories of the extermination camp, where much of the opera is set, with unsparing depictions of brutality and systematic murder.
Musically, it's challenging as well—full of spiky dissonance and jarring percussive sounds, mixed with jazz and deliberately banal waltz music. "It's a difficult and dense work that benefits from repeated hearings," Summers said. "But it's an emotional world that people don't often want to repeat."
Critical response has been mixed, but most agree it's a work worth hearing. "If not quite the 'perfect masterpiece' as Shostakovich claimed," wrote New Yorker critic Alex Ross, "it is a work of concentrated power that outweighs most other attempts to dramatize the Holocaust."
The company drew respectable audiences to its five performances, in part by offering large numbers of heavily discounted tickets. Perryn Leech, the HGO's managing director, said that's a tactic the company can afford because of its sound financial footing.
Though hardly immune from the economic downturn of 2008-09, HGO suffered less than many other opera houses. "In Texas, we went through the recession last and came out first," Leech said. "Everything is based on energy prices. Most other companies have structural debt or have used up rainy-day funds. We've had a balanced budget the last three years."
For the future, Leech hopes to grow his endowment, raise subscriptions and lower the average age of attendees. (He said it has already dropped from the upper 60s to low 60s). The 2014-15 season shows the kind of mix Leech wants to maintain: favorites like Puccini's "Madame Butterfly," adventurous productions like the staging of Wagner's "Ring" cycle by Barcelona's La Fura dels Baus and premieres—this time a less daunting work, an adaptation of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" by British composer Iain Bell.