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 Mieczyslaw 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. Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser, last seen here in Showboat, sings the role of Lisa's husband Walter and HGO Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers will conduct.
"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 cliches 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 anti-apartheid family (one reason she says she chose to leave the country was because of the discriminatory system) but 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."
"We tend to think of something like Auschwitz as something that happened a long time ago and in history," she says. "But to see it so close and to here people speak again. Some characters are based on true life people. I think just the sheer inhumanity that took place there will hit home. How could this ever have happened? The German nation being one of the most educated, sophisticated, cultural nations known as the nation of the thinkers, philosophers and poets. How could this happen that such an organized annihilation of a people could take place?"
The late 1980s and early '90s was not a good time to be a white South African requesting a visa, Breedt says. With the world's increasing pressure on South Africa to end apartheid, other countries were not rushing to admit whites from her country. In addition, the South African government kept its citizens on a very short leash -- if they did leave the country to travel they could only take a very limited number of funds with them, she said.
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She was able to leave because she was going to study opera in London, but when she got there she was told she was too advanced and needed to just start her career with auditions. She ended up in a smaller town in Germany where she spent the next five years -- she was barred from traveling to other cities in Germany -- until she eventually got a more permanent visa and then German citizenship. That final move enabled her to travel to the rest of Europe and the world and her career took off, Breedt says.
She has also taught for a number of years and is she is a professor at the University of Munich also the International Opera School in Zurich.
Beyond the political statements, though, Breedt says the music in the opera while not always beautiful, is always expressive and compelling. "Any audience members will be touched and moved by it," she says.
The Passenger runs January 18 through February 2. 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, Wednesday, Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday February 2. For information call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. Sung in English with projected text. $15-$354.