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Michelle Breedt on “Lisa” from Mieczysław Weinberg's “The Passenger”

Michelle Breedt about her character “Lisa”— a concentration camp guard confronted with one of her former inmates on an ocean liner, 15 years later—in Mieczysław Weinberg’s opera The Passenger: Excerpt taken, translated, and adapted from Klaus J. Kalchschmid’s interview in the 2011 Almanac of the Society of Friends of Bayreuth.

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It was important for me not to judge Lisa during her time in the concentration camp; to approach her open and honestly. I toyed with the idea of turning the role down, but finally thought that I had to do it. The topic of perpetrator vs. victim is enormous and one familiar to me growing up amid Apartheid in South Africa. In a way I experienced both aspects; being among the perpetrators on account of being white and enjoying the luxuries of privilege that were denied to black South Africans. But fortunately I grew up in a very religious home with parents that were strongly anti-Apartheid. My dad was a pastor and sometimes we got to let black persecuted preachers stay at our place for the night.

I will never forget the experience of Richard Attenorough’s Cry Freedom – his film about Steve Biko, the black civil rights activist who died in 1977 following torture during interrogation – coming out in 1987. It was the time of the national state of emergency from 1988 until 1990 when the police was at liberty to arrest anyone for any (or no) reason at all. There were checkpoints everywhere. I still remember that Friday afternoon; I was about to graduate from the conservatory and was already singing small parts at the Cape Town opera. Just across from the opera, at two in the afternoon, there was a showing of Cry Freedom. We were about ten students who went and saw it. The film just set an emotional rollercoaster in motion. I had a very vague feeling that something was odd, that something wasn’t quite right. When we got out, there were police everywhere, with big German Shepherds, and hordes of press. It turns out that we had unwittingly been the only ones to have seen the film in its uncensored version. I was asked how the film had affected me and responded: “Every South African has the right to see this film uncensored. And if the regime had nothing to hide, it wouldn’t need to confiscate its copies.” That was quoted on the front page of a major newspaper the next day. A friend told me about it and she warned me: “From now one I would be very careful about what you say!” Shortlery thereafter I left South Africa; three months before Mandela was released.

I let the part of Lisa gestate inside me for a year before I tackled the music, and read volumes upon volumes about the topic. By that time a lot of my responses to the character were already in place and accordingly I was very grateful to the liberties David Poutney granted me in shaping the character on stage, really letting me play ‘my’ Lisa. He only fine-tuned this or that. And I’m very happy that this fantastic production of this enormously touching and important work is now available on DVD/Blu-ray and that I will go on tour with it. First in London at the ENO in September, then Houston and New York, and later to Germany, too.

The DVD is out in Europe, and when the distributor Qualiton gets its act together, also in the US, soon.

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