An opera for Auschwitz

‘If there are subjects too terrible for art to deal with (discuss), the Holocaust heads the queue.” Thus began a review of the opera The Passenger, currently playing at ENO. The author went on to say that Holocaust art always ends up mawkish, sentimental or banal and, worse still, the subject matter stifles criticism. I disagree totally. The opera in question is partly set in Auschwitz. It is based on a novel by Zofia Posmysz, who survived three years there. The music is by the Polish composer Mieczysław Weinberg, who lost all his family in the camps. They chose to make this artistic statement.

It was mostly well reviewed. Yet some critics seemed to mark down the quality of the piece in relation to whether it lived up to the enormity of the subject – and indeed some questioned the whole enterprise.

In this paper, the director David Pountney suggested the anxiety over fictitious portrayals of the Holocaust is fuelled by “increasingly flippant and irresponsible references to the Holocaust in books and films that exploit its emotional weight as a marketing device”.

And indeed, the Jewish Chronicle’s editor, Stephen Pollard, damned the production as using the Holocaust “as fodder for entertainment”. But entertainment is defined as something that amuses, pleases, or diverts, especially a performance or show. Surely opera, in its unique combination of music and drama, can and should be more than this. Pollard also seems to suggest that any public sharing of a piece of art that depicts the Holocaust is obscene. But the standing ovation that Posmysz received as she joined the cast at the curtain call was not flippant or obscene.

Art is an essential component of a civilised society. It enables us to confront extremes of behaviour, personal and public; it helps communicate difficult issues; it challenges and provokes as well as lifts the spirit. But the discussion around The Passenger goes to the heart of some difficult questions about the impact that art can make.

One reviewer said that this is an opera in which you should not expect to come out feeling good about yourself or humanity. I beg to differ, as in many scenes it is a celebration of the human spirit even in extreme adversity. But even if it were true, does this make it unsuitable? The theory of tragedy proposes the role of catharsis in cleansing the soul. When after a powerful drama we begin to ask someone “did you enjoy that?”, we stop and realise that enjoy is the wrong verb. What is the right verb?

The question is heightened in relation to any attempt to make drama from the Holocaust. Genocide is not confined to the Holocaust, not even in the 20th century. But two aspects make it special. One is sheer size – approximately two-thirds of the European Jewish population of 9 million were killed, not to mention other ethnic communities and minorities. The other is that the centre of this awfulness was in a country with such a rich cultural heritage. How can we possibly make sense of this?

And yet we must try. One of the most powerful moments in the opera is when a prisoner is told by the Commander to play a sentimental waltz, and instead plays the Bach D minor Chaconne, a work described by Brahms as “a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings” – with a gut-wrenching aftermath of the violin being smashed and the prisoner being taken away to his death. This was, in the words of one critic “an extremely symbolic confrontation – Germany at its noblest confronting Germany at its foulest”.

Art certainly does not have all the answers. And in relation to the scale of the Holocaust, it certainly cannot do justice to the full horror of it all. But it can ask questions, it can provoke, it can remind us.

In the words of Zofia Posmysz herself: “I also used to think no words could express such an experience. But that’s changed, because even if a hundredth of the truth is told, a fragment will live on in future generations. That is what we owe those who died there.”

By Sir Vernon Ellis, chairman of the ENO and the British Council but is writing in a personal capacity.

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