A tawdry Holocaust opera

By Stephen Pollard, October 3, 2011

I have good news for James Inverne.

On this page last week, James highlighted the regularity with which arts events of specific interest to Jews are scheduled for days when no remotely observant Jew can attend.

The latest example is The Passenger, the much-hyped opera set in Auschwitz, which lay unperformed on stage from its composition by Mieczyslaw Weinberg in 1967 until last year.

ENO gave its UK premiere on Monday. But the next six performances are either on Yom Tov or Shabbat. Only the last night isn't.

So here's the good news. You're not missing much.

It is difficult to see what purpose is served by the exhumation

In fact, I'd put it more strongly. I've rarely encountered a starker mismatch between the seriousness and obvious good intentions of everyone involved in a performance and the tawdry, distasteful spectacle that emerged.

Let's leave aside the fact that Weinberg's music is derivative in the extreme. The notion that any of it is fit to represent the Shoah ought to have been so obviously and self-evidently ridiculous to any discerning listener that it is bizarre that the plug was not pulled on any proposed staging at the start.

The ENO programme cites Jurg Amann's observation that, "In the face of the reality, all invention is obscene", only to dismiss it by arguing that "the authenticity and standpoint" of The Passenger, having been written by a Polish refugee to the USSR based on a novel by a survivor, render it inapplicable in this instance.

Whether or not Amann's assertion is true - are Primo Levi's works obscene? - that is no rebuttal. Many survivors had artistic responses to their experience. The fact they were inspired by direct experience of the Shoah does not make them, of itself, worthy of public performance.

Indeed, it's that public element which is so critical here. Whatever private response to the Shoah anyone creates is their own business.

But when that response is played out on stage in a fictional psycho-drama about the relationship between a guard and an inmate, with a love story between two inmates as the engine of the plot, performed in a glossy production, with actorly rictus expressions of misery, to an audience nipping off for champagne bar refreshment at the interval, then it moves from the private sphere to the obscenely inappropriate public sphere.

The intentions of everyone involved in The Passenger are clearly honourable. But the result is - cannot be otherwise - the Shoah as fodder for entertainment.

Worst of all, it is difficult to see what purpose is served by the opera's exhumation beyond artistic self-aggrandisement - showing off just how moved the performers and the cultural chattering classes are by the Holocaust. Oh yes, they care.

Clearly, however, not enough.

ENO until October 25 (0871 911 0200, eno.org). Stephen Pollard is editor of the JC

Last updated: 11:52am, October 3 2011