Every time I go to a very familiar tragic opera, I still hope the ending will somehow miraculously change and everyone will live happily ever. Unfortunately, despite my prayers, Tosca every time jumps from the bridge, Cavaradossi gets shot, Gilda and Carmen stabbed, and Aida and Radames buried alive.  Welcome to the fun world of the opera!

Rigoletto Rayan McKinny and his dead daughter Gilda Uliana Alexyuk

Rigoletto Rayan McKinny and his dead daughter Gilda Uliana Alexyuk

Knowing that I am doing everything possible to shield myself from negative emotions, Rob proclaimed after looking at the HGO upcoming performances: “Anya, you do not want to see this opera for sure”. He was talking about “Passenger” by Weinberg, premiered at the HGO as a part of this season. We hold season subscription and drive to Houston three times a year for a two operas weekend. I was so busy this year that I totally forgot to reserve tickets for this set of operas. He was on call and couldn’t go, so it was decided I will go with my mom for Rigoletto and will skip “Passenger”. I did not really check why he thought that I should not see it; I trust he knows me by now as we will have been married seven years this February.

My father reads the Russian newspaper Our Texas published in Houston and distributed throughout the Russian speaking population in Texas. “Do you know that there is a Weinberg festival going on in Houston this month?” said my dad and he sounded extremely excited. To be honest with you, it took me a while to remember who Weinberg was. “He is a fantastic composer” he said. “I played most of his symphonies and Shostakovich loved this guy as well, I want to see his opera.” It does not happen too often that my father wants to see an opera so I took his wish seriously. Since I had tickets to this opera anyway, it was decided all three of us would drive to Houston for an opera weekend. I called the theater and purchased the third ticket for my father.

opera_women_prison-350Passenger was shocking. How do you write an opera about concentration camps? What do you use as a musical language? Pretty themes would be totally out of place. The colors were muted, the musical language sharp and descriptive in some places with occasional gunshots and a crying violin in the background. This was such despicable recent history; the Holocaust, which took the lives of some 6 million Jews and millions of others. It is incomprehensible and inhuman and no matter how you describe it there is no way to connect to it. My family lost relatives in the Holocaust, in Babi Yar in Kiev and probably in some other places. Many were fighting in the war and never came back and I still cannot connect to it. I do not understand why anyone would do something like this.

When I was a little girl, just like every other little girl, I wanted to become an actress… the star of course as you can imagine. After many hours of convincing my parents to add a small acting club to my music routine I was taken to a theater group for children. My dream was to play Madam Bovary or some other well-dressed respectable French lady. The role I was offered was the one of Zoika Kosmodemyanskaya, a partisan heroine of the Second World War. I did not take the role and dropped that class and for some reason attending this opera reminded me about that incident. I guess because this is too close to home. My mother, a little girl at a time with her family was walking on foot through the Ukraine and Russia away from the Nazis, seeing a lot of death hunger and destruction on the way. She easily could be one of those women in this story. What a terrifying thought!

Back stage picture of two prisoners Uliana Alexyuk soprano and Carolyn Spraule mezzo soprano

Back stage picture of two prisoners Uliana Alexyuk soprano and Carolyn Spraule mezzo soprano

I know many of the HGO singers who took part in this opera in a woman’s department of Auschwitz. All of them are young, beautiful, and very talented ladies. The staging director did a great job in erasing their personalities and muting their look to the point that if I had not read their names in the program I would have no idea who they were. Wasn’t this the point of the concentration camp, to turn individuals into numbers on their forearms? I could be one of them. How would I behave? Would Nazi break me and make me week scared and depressed? Would I be able to keep human dignity or I would I get sick from cold and hunger and hopelessness and be killed in a gas chamber with millions of others?

This is dark side that I was trying to avoid from early childhood. It was very difficult because the Soviet teaching curriculum was very heavy on the Second World War for obvious reasons; Russia lost the most of the people in this War. And here I was, facing my fears, brought to life by the Jewish composer Weinberg, who walked from Poland on foot to Russia to avoid being captured by Nazis and put into one of these “charming” places like Auschwitz with only one way in and no way out. We do remember. We remember even if it happened not to us, but to millions like us. We are disgusted that humanity is capable of things like this and this opera did a great job of reminding us about it. MAY IT NEVER EVER HAPPNED TO ANYONE! AMEN!

All of us are passengers of life in a matter of speaking. May our ride be fun, creative, productive and dignified! On a brighter side, after  “Passenger” Rigoletto felt like a comedy…and I am trying to bring Gilda, sung by a fantastic Russian soprano, Ulyana Alexchuck for the final concert of Musica Without Borders festival.

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