An opera singer debuting a new role can be a nerve-wracking experience under normal circumstances. But everything is heightened for soprano and Gurnee native Amanda Majeski as she portrays Auschwitz prisoner Marta for the Lyric Opera of Chicago premiere of "The Passenger."
"It's such an intense emotional roller coaster -- more than anything else I've done before," said Majeski, who has been immersing herself in books, articles and documentaries about the Holocaust. "The responsibility is more than any I've every felt before just to tell the story with integrity and sensitivity and to honor all these people."
Also making Majeski nervous and excited is the fact that 92-year-old Zofia Posmysz will attend Tuesday's opening night. Posmysz, a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, wrote the novel and radio play "Passenger From Cabin Number 45," which was the source material for the Russian opera by Polish-Jewish-born composer Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996) and librettist Alexander Medvedev (1927-2010).
"The Passenger" begins on a trans-Atlantic journey with Liese (Daveda Karanas), the wife of German diplomat Walter (Brandon Jovanovich), as they head to his new posting in Brazil. But Liese's dark past as a concentration camp overseer gets revealed when she recognizes a Polish passenger aboard the ship who bears a striking resemblance to an Auschwitz inmate named Marta. "The Passenger" then flashes back and forth in time as Liese tells her husband of her role at Auschwitz and how it affected Marta, Marta's lover Tadeusz (Joshua Hopkins) and her fellow inmates Katya (Kelly Kaduce) and Bronka (Liuba Sokolova).
Though "The Passenger" was completed in 1968, Soviet suppression largely kept it under wraps -- so much so that the first fully staged production didn't appear until 2010 at the Bregenz Festival in Austria.
British-born Lyric Opera of Chicago general director Anthony Freud, then heading up Houston Grand Opera, saw that production by director David Pountney. "The Passenger" deeply moved Freud, whose Hungarian mother is a survivor of Auschwitz.
"If you can imagine that with my background, I question a lot of works of art inspired by the Holocaust. Many of them seem to be melodramatic or sentimental or simplistic in different ways," Freud said. "'The Passenger' seems to be one of the rare exceptions in that it deals with the subject of victim and perpetrator in a very mature, very sophisticated way."
Freud was able to schedule and import Pountney's production for its U.S. premiere in Houston in early 2014, as well as its Windy City debut after he assumed the general directorship of the Lyric in 2011. While "The Passenger" was sung in an English translation in Houston, the Lyric production features a new translation of the different languages -- Polish, Russian, German and Yiddish -- with English translations projected above the stage.
Freud also scheduled a series of "Memory and Reckoning" symposiums and events tied to the Chicago debut of "The Passenger." Most prominent is the Lyric's commission of a world premiere klezmer chamber opera called "The Property," which will debut this week at the University of Chicago and later play in Skokie at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. Written by composer Wlad Marhulets and librettist Stephanie Fleischmann, "The Property" focuses on a Jewish Polish woman and her granddaughter, who return to Warsaw to regain family property lost during World War II.
"When you do a piece like 'The Passenger' with its relevance to all sorts of issues today, it's very important to generate discussion and discourse," said Freud. "One of the things I like about the piece so much is that I think you come away from a performance of 'The Passenger' focusing on the triumph of humanity against impossible odds. It's a piece that has great humanity and great beauty. Yes, there's violence in it that you would expect with an opera with that story, but ultimately it's about the irrepressible humanity of the inmates, and that's a powerful, very cathartic feeling."