Lisa, a former SS offficer, is aboard an ocean liner with her German-diplomat husband when she discovers that one of her fellow passengers looks like a former Auschwitz prisoner she tormented. Mezzo-soprano Michelle Breedt, a South African by birth and now a German citizen, sings the role of Lisa in the American premiere of The Passenger, by exiled Polish-Jewish composer Mieczysaw Weinberg. Houston Grand Opera is not only staging the American premiere of the work here, but this July will take its production to the Lincoln Center Festival.
“I declined the role two or three times,” says Breedt, who is making her Houston debut. “I was overwhelmed by the piece. I felt it was such a huge task to play the role of Lisa. Because it is so easy to fall into the traps of conventions. The story is being told from the perpetrator’s viewpoint, which is very surprising, and it’s of course describing what happens and it sends her on this amazing emotional journey where she has to confront herself at last. It’s so easy to fall into the traps of the typical clichés of playing the bad guy, being the typical SS officer, cruel, sadistic, psychopathic.”
Breedt, whose father is a minister in South Africa, says she came from an antiapartheid family (one reason she says she chose to leave the country was the discriminatory system), but adds that she certainly grew up with other people who didn’t share her family’s beliefs. “Because of my background of being born in South Africa and being raised within a system in the apartheid system, it gave me a view of the other side of the medallion. To see what such a brainwashing system can do to people. How people can literally in so many ways give the responsibility of their own conscience to someone else, to the official above you or the government.”
Beyond the political statements, though, Breedt says the music in the opera, while not always beautiful, is always expressive and compelling. Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser, last seen here in Showboat, sings the role of Lisa’s husband, Walter. HGO Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers will conduct. The Passenger is sung in English with projected text.
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Various times and dates including 7:30 p.m. January 18. Through February 2. Wortham Center, 500 Texas. For a full schedule, call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $15 to $354.
Sat., Jan. 18, 7:30 p.m.; Wed., Jan. 22, 7:30 p.m.; Sat., Jan. 25, 7:30 p.m.; Fri., Jan. 31, 7:30 p.m.; Sun., Feb. 2, 2 p.m., 2014