Written by: Ben Hogwood
It is perhaps unusual to interview the singer taking the main character of an operatic production once the run has started – and the interviewer has seen it – but that is the interesting position I found myself in. In Mieczysław Weinberg’s The Passenger, Michelle Breedt is singing the prominent role of Liese, a married woman who, when on a voyage to a new life in Brazil with her diplomat husband, is forced to confront her past as an SS Overseer at Auschwitz. The plot is taken from Zofia Posmysz’s book of the same name, a semi-autobiographical story that explores the author’s own time in the concentration camp. Posmysz survived – while Weinberg, a Polish Jew, lost his entire family to the Germans in World War Two. Both, then, have deep emotional involvement in the resultant story and opera. As we begin to talk, Breedt is considering Weinberg’s clever use of jazz appropriations for the music on-board ship.
“It is a very clever way of combining the two worlds. He wrote a lot of film music, just to keep himself going – film and music for cartoons – and I’m sure that also had some influence. That jazz element on the ship gives it a really strange tang, but it is really good.” Michelle has a demanding role, moving between the two distinct parts of the set – the ocean liner the top deck (as it were) and the hell of Auschwitz down below. “Well this is the interesting thing. The piece is called The Passenger, but the title role, as (director) David Pountney was saying, is Liese, because it is told from her perspective. The fact Zofia Posmysz wrote it from that perspective meant it had problems getting published, because in the 1960s a lot of people found that she was almost too sympathetic in giving this SS officer too much of a human face, by crediting her with feelings of doubt and anguish, and a bad conscience.”
Does Michelle feel Liese has genuine principles or she is devious? “I don’t think in any opera literature that there is a female character that is so interesting to play. When David Pountney asked me, after he’d asked me twice, I couldn’t really get my head around the piece and thought I didn’t want to go there. But I thought I should, because of my background, growing up in South Africa in a ‘system’, I have seen the coin from both sides, seeing atrocities and also being a victim, ‘I don’t know what happened in Soweto because I was never allowed to go there and the press was not free’. I could only know what was being told, and that sounds so incredulous for anybody who has lived in a country where the press is free. You can’t believe it is true, but it was. I could understand from the German perspective where people say ‘I didn’t know’. You know that bad things happen, but the extent of what was happening you were an ignoramus of. Also being a victim in the sense of when I left South Africa in 1990, three months before Mandela came out of prison, nobody knew that he was going to come out. I just couldn’t take it any longer in the country with the political situation I was brought up in, and in an extremely anti-apartheid household. As a Messianic Jew myself – which adds an even bigger dimension to the whole piece for me – I was received with great hostility here. Because of my skin colour being white I was immediately equated with being a racist. I had my passport thrown back in my face at Heathrow once. Just because I was white I was condemned, just like being a Jew you would have been condemned in that time. So I have this insight, maybe, into this character from all perspectives – more than someone else might have had.”
Michelle spent a lot of time preparing for the role. “Having committed myself I did a tremendous amount of research. I watched a lot of film of the period, because not much is known of the function of the SS women. I tried to glean as much information as I possibly could, but my main source is the libretto, and the piece that is there in front of me, given by Zofia Posmysz. It’s not one-hundred-percent biographical, but it’s based on her experiences in Auschwitz. For example the relationship with Tadeusz and Marta is fictitious, but it being an opera it has to have a love story somewhere! It makes it more poignant; bringing everything together. Liese is one of the most arresting characters. Lulu (Berg’s opera) is maybe one that jumps to mind, of a different nature, but I think for a mezzo-soprano – or even the whole female operatic repertoire – it’s quite an extraordinary figure to play.”
Given Michelle’s colourful and varied history of roles, that is quite a statement – especially given her build-up to the present ENO production. “I was very busy because I was singing Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde at the Bayreuth Festival while we were preparing for this, but we had normal production time to go through the character development. It was strenuous flying backwards and forwards between rehearsals and performances, and it was strenuous because I had to re-learn the piece in English, because it was in German [at the Bregenz Festival, Austria, as part of a multi-lingual translation].” It does definitely sound different in English, it sounds way too light for my ears. It robs a certain dramatic element, because we’ve all heard and seen those films with Hitler proclamations, and of course it robs the dramatic effect with the SS officers in awfully polite English. Seeing those scenes in German has a very powerful impact, but of course the tradition of ENO is to sing in the vernacular. The most important thing for me is that the message of this piece gets across, and if it is to sing in the vernacular here that is it. It was difficult for me because instinctively I wanted to sing the German text, and the music has sometimes to change rhythms to accommodate the language changes, and this would sometimes flummox me during rehearsals.”
In preparation for her role in The Passenger, did Michelle listen to Weinberg’s music? “Yes I did”, she responds enthusiastically. “Once I got the operatic score I started my research because I did not know him, so I started to listen to various pieces. I had worked with Vladimir Fedoseyev, who Weinberg dedicated his Nineteenth Symphony to. I spoke with him and his wife, as they knew Weinberg very well. I think he’s a wonderful composer, and absolutely has a right to be up there and to be heard today. Really some of the music is quite extraordinary. I hope too that some of his operas will get to be heard, and I mean not just The Passenger or The Portrait.”
Michelle also accepts that the Holocaust as a basis for a story and opera has to be undertaken from a position of authenticity. “I think that is what gives it its credibility. I think if somebody else had come along and written it there would be reservations, and people would be wary to go there. Because we had two people who had experienced Auschwitz (Polish-born Weinberg lost family there), that that gives The Passenger its right to be performed.” The set designer, fellow South African Johan Engels, gets special praise. “I think he has created a phenomenal set. It is the simplicity of the complexity and the complexity of the simplicity, with the ship hovering above. I think he’s created without making a caricature of it. With Johan being South African we spoke in depth about this, and his experiences in South Africa also contributed to his understanding and sensitivity towards this. It adds an indescribable benefit.”
One of the opera’s most striking moments brings the boat and the concentration camp into almost direct conflict as Liese, still wearing white, is transported back to Auschwitz. “Yes, the question is what happens to Liese in the end”, she says thoughtfully. “We don’t know if this Marta figure is a figment of her imagination, her madness. That’s why Marta stays covered up, and I think Zofia Posmysz wanted to leave that open. Seeing her there is a reminder that there are still too many people around this world that given the circumstances would go there again. We have genocide happening as we speak, and that is not something that was exclusive to Auschwitz. That echo, or that ‘shimmering’ of Marta is to remind us of that; unfortunately.”
Breedt’s discography includes lesser-known but valuably recorded operas such as Hindemith’s Die Harmonie der Welt and Viktor Ullmann’s Der zerbrochene Krug, and these mix freely with roles in Ariadne auf Naxos and Le nozze di Figaro. “I live in Zurich, and I started working with (conductor) Gerd Albrecht a lot. He had asked me to record with him, and he was the one that started recording a tremendous amount of unknown pieces, especially of people who had died in concentration camps. I did first recordings of a lot of works, and although we had a slew of Figaro recordings – and I did one – that was very exciting, because it was a very great privilege and responsibility as well. As far as recordings are concerned the industry as we know it is over-saturated, so maybe they were opening up possibilities to record music that has not been recorded before. Being an artist and working with conductors, they know that because of my very strong musical background that I could ‘cope’ with such music, and am a reliable recording performer.
She moves on to discuss the recording process. “What happens, because there is not much money, is that there is not great time for big rehearsals. Literally with those extremely complex works, working with Marek Janowski with the Hindemith, we would hear the orchestration for the first time, literally play a section through, and the second time the red light would be running, and you would record immediately. You would need somebody who musically really knows what they’re doing and can go in there and do it, but because I am an extremely inquisitive person I found this very fascinating and interesting. Because I am not just a singer but am a musician, I found this very challenging. Now I record for a South African company called TwoPianists Records, which is a young company run by two concert pianists (Nina Schumann and Luis Magalhães) who decided to branch out. They’ve done extremely well. My latest disc is called Shakespeare Inspired, because I love William Shakespeare, and I wanted to hear how British composers hear Shakespeare. I am very proud to say that this disc has recently won two prizes. I’ll be recording a Schubert recital in January. A great love of mine is recital work. I do a big spectrum because I find it is vitally important to keep flexible as an artist as well. You can’t necessarily put me in a box, which I hate in any case! I tend to confuse people.”
Michelle is still in regular contact with her home country and its music. “I am a professor at the University of Stellenbosch. I teach, it’s one of my great passions, and I go back once a year, when I possibly can. My family is there. After The Passenger I will be doing a tour, with some big concerts of the Shakespeare CD.” And what of opera in South Africa? “Opera is struggling to survive there, but it is surviving. I think that’s what we’ve got to look at, and the face of opera has changed a lot there. In the apartheid days it was seen as a thing to brag about, pumping oodles of money into it. As we know it is the most expensive art-form around. Opera has suffered being a Euro-centric art-form, but there is a tremendous amount of black singers, some phenomenal singers, who are claiming and discovering opera as something they are passionate about and want to do. This is very encouraging, and this is my challenge – I don’t want to give opera a political face or a cultural name. I’m just going to say it’s a world heritage, and I am so enthusiastic at the talent out there, but of course money is a problem. It is my duty then as an international singer to go back there, speak and to give back to South Africa, and to inspire. We are hanging on!”