Scene Last Night: Survivor’s Story Makes NYC Premiere

After midnight at the cast party for “The Passenger,” a waiter came by with a tray of chocolate-chip cookies, small, thin and crisp.

Zofia Posmysz took one and savored a bite. Yes, it was a favorite of hers, the Polish Catholic 90-year-old said through a translator, smiling and laughing, her eyes bright.

Of all those soaking in the triumph last night at the Park Avenue Armory, she was the most deserving: The opera “The Passenger” is based on the radio play and novel she wrote more than 50 years ago out of her experiences as a prisoner at Auschwitz (where she was sent for associating with students passing out anti-Nazi pamphlets) and afterward. The opera was written in the 1960s in Russia, where it was censored; it did not see its full production until 2010.

The premiere in New York is presented by the Lincoln Center Festival and the Park Avenue Armory, using the Houston Grand Opera production. A version is headed to the Lyric Opera of Chicago next season.

“So far I have seen four performances of the opera,” Posmysz said, “beginning with the world premiere in Austria. I must say that this one made the strongest impression on me. I’m not sure whether it was because of this unique space, but also I discovered new elements in the singing which I didn’t notice before.”

Staged in the Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory (with performances through Sunday), for the first time the audience faces the cast without the orchestra pit in between, bringing spectators closer to the action on two levels.

Emotional Conversation

On top is a passenger ship headed to Brazil from Germany, painted white, with everyone on it wearing white. Here a former SS officer, Liese, thinks she sees Marta, who had been one of her charges at Auschwitz. She confesses her past to her husband, Walter, who responds with fear and anger.

“The conversation between Liese and Walter is much more emotional here,” Posmysz said. “I’m very sensitive to those scenes which are taking place on the passenger ship. These scenes are the best reflections of what I wanted to describe in my book.”

Below the ship is Auschwitz: the barracks, railroad tracks, the crematorium, the tables with piles of shoes from new inmates. Posmysz spent three days at the death camp showing the production team the bunk she’d slept in and the bricks of the death chambers.

Survivors’ Insight

All the effort won praise from audience members last night.

“It’s a marvelous evocation of that horrible circumstance, interpreted both through music and visual effects,” said Elihu Rose, co-chairman of the Park Avenue Armory, who has taught the Holocaust as a history professor. “I think it’s magnificent.”

“I can weep all the way through,” said Morris Gelb, retired from running Lyondell Chemical Co., and one of the funders of the Houston Grand Opera production, who has had the opportunity to talk with Posymsz too.

“She gave me insight into what it was like for my mother at Auschwitz,” Gelb said. His mother talked about her experiences only later in life, he said.

“It’s an opera about remembering, not forgetting, that asks questions about forgiveness,” said Jeffrey Horowitz, founding artistic director of Theatre for a New Audience. “It’s about love, terrible cruelty in humanity. The sustained gravity of tone in the performances, in the music, in the setting, it’s extraordinary. How do you make art out of that that doesn’t feel artificial? That’s very, very hard.”

Soldier’s Medallion

Posmysz three years ago wrote her final work: a short story about the medallion she wears, given to her by a Polish soldier at Auschwitz. As she spoke, she took out the medallion to show me, then tucked it back under her shirt.

She said she sustains herself these days by showing youth Auschwitz through the International Youth Meeting Center, sharing her mission of never forgetting.

The past is always relevant to the present, I said, before asking Posmysz what she thinks of the escalating conflict between Israel and Hamas.

“This is for me a great pain,” Posmysz said, “because I’m very much concerned about the future of the Jewish state, remembering under what circumstances it became reality. I mean, it was a miracle of course. So my heart is on the Israeli side, but suffering is always suffering.”

Composer Pilgrimage

Opening night brought out Norman Benzaquen, managing member of Gilder Gagnon Howe & Co.; Morris Offit, chairman of Offit Capital; art dealer Frances Beatty Adler; and Lee Elman, whose Aston Magna Music Festival in the Berkshires will on July 19 present Nico Muhly’s composition “Aston Magna,” commissioned, Elman said, with Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” in mind.

The event was also sort of a pilgrimage for composers including Hal Willner, who wrote the music for Robert Wilson’s “The Old Woman,” at Brooklyn Academy of Music last month; Mark Adamo (“Little Women”); and John Corigliano, who will present settings of three poems by Dylan Thomas in Wales in October.

The opera will be performed again on Saturday and Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at the Park Avenue Armory.

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