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Rarely staged ‘The Passenger’ has been an emotional journey for Lyric Opera

BY KYLE MACMILLAN | FOR THE SUN-TIMES

Operas typically revolve around spurned lovers, scheming barbers or mythological gods. While such tales might offer telling portraits of the human condition, they usually don’t connect much with reality, or at least modern reality.

But “The Passenger” is starkly different. Based on a radio play and novel by Holocaust survivor and writer Zofia Posmysz, it tells the harrowing story of a former SS officer at Auschwitz who has to confront her hidden past when she thinks she sees a camp survivor aboard an ocean liner.

‘THE PASSENGER’

When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 24, with five additional performances through March 15

Where: Lyric Opera of Chicago, Civic Opera House, 20 N.Wacker

Tickets: $39-$249

Info: lyricopera.org

When Lyric Opera of Chicago approached Daveda Karanas about portraying the camp overseer, Liese, in a production that opens Feb. 24 for six performances, the mezzo-soprano didn’t immediately jump at the chance.

“It was difficult for me accepting the challenge,” Karanas said, “because of the subject matter, especially playing a former Nazi officer. As a person who really likes to dive into the characters, I was kind of hesitant about it.”

Amanda Majeski is among the cast of  "The Passenger" premiering Feb, 24 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. | Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times

Amanda Majeski is among the cast of “The Passenger” premiering Feb. 24 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. | Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times

Lyric’s general director, Anthony Freud, is sure “The Passenger” — the performances and the weeks of preparations leading up to them — will be an unusual, sometimes tough emotional journey for conductor Andrew Davis and all the participants.

“I believe passionately that opera as an art form is relevant,” he said, “and it seems to me that inherent in that belief is the need for opera to deal with relevant subjects that can be uncomfortable, that can be topical, that can be controversial.”

Lyric is just the second American company to present “The Passenger,” which was written in 1968 by Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996), a Soviet composer of Polish-Jewish origins who lost much of his family to the Nazis.

Although originally scheduled to debut at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre upon its completion, the opera did not receive its stage premiere until 2010 at Austria’s Bregenz Festival.

The Chicago performances will feature the Bregenz production, with sets by the late Johan Engels based on a two-tier staging conception of librettist Alexander Medvedev. Built on railcars, they evoke alternately the ocean liner and the gritty, barbed-wire reality of Auschwitz.

Unlike in Houston where the opera was performed in English, it will be sung at Lyric in the languages of the ship’s passengers and the concentration camp guards and inmates — Russian, German, Polish, French, Yiddish, Greek, Czech and English.

After seeing the 2010 production, Freud became convinced “The Passenger” was a major work that deserved to be seen and heard. As general director of Houston Grand Opera from 2006 to 2011, he played a key role in the opera’s eventual American debut there in early 2014.

“I’m the son of a Holocaust survivor,” he said, “and perhaps for that reason, I come to works of art inspired by the Holocaust with a certain amount of cynicism. A lot of the work inspired by it seems to me to be sentimental or melodramatic or simplistic, but this piece, I felt, was very much an exception to that.”

To prepare for their roles in this opera, many of the soloists conducted considerable research, reading books and watching documentaries about the Holocaust, the Nazis and World War II. Karanas even went so far as to make a special trip in November to Poland to spend two days with a guide touring Auschwitz and seeing up-close the ghastly events that went on there.

“My next step was: How do I take this character,” she said, “and how do I bring her to life and make her 3D as opposed to either being hard with no emotions, no vulnerability, no humanity, or making her too much of a victim right at the beginning, where no one really believes what happened in her story?”

But as important as it is to connect with the history and people behind “The Passenger,” there is a danger as a performer in getting too close to the story, said soprano Amanda Majeski, who portrays Marta, the Polish camp survivor who haunts Liese.

“There’s a part in the opera,” Majeski said, “where Katya [another camp inmate] is just singing this folk song to me a cappella — no orchestra. She’s just alone singing to me. Sometimes that emotion just overwhelms you thinking that this probably happened. It’s real. So, it’s difficult to tell the story but also not get so overwhelmed by it that you can’t.”

As daunting as taking on “The Passenger” has been, both Karanas and Majeski said they already know they would like the chance to perform in it again.

“I hope so,” Majeski said. “I hope by the end of it I’ll feel good with what I’ve done and that I’ve told the story in the right way.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.