On Jan. 9, 2019, the New York City Opera proudly presented the 35th world premiere in the company’s history, Ted and Lesley Rosenthal’s “Dear Erich,” at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
The jazz opera tells the story of Erich, a young man who emigrates the United States right as Hitler rises to power in Germany. His family stays behind and will eventually be killed by the Nazis. Erich receives updates from his mother Herta via letters, but when her letters stop coming, the uncertainty of her fate generates an undying survivor’s guilt that dominates Erich for the rest of his days. As portrayed in the opera, which moves back and forth between Erich in present-day Chicago and his youth, the opera’s protagonist slowly loses connection with his wife Lili and is never able to build a true connection with his children Hannah and Freddy. The ghost of his mother haunts him until the day he dies.
The opera is based on Rosenthal discovering a box of letters from his grandmother Herta to his father Erich after he died in 1995. He had the letters translated and “as the translations came in, they opened a world for me, with vivid depictions in a personable voice – the voice of a grandmother I never knew – describing family, friends, people and places that were part of my father’s life,” Rosenthal said in a recent interview with OperaWire. “This profound and intense experience inspired me to create a jazz opera, inspired by the events surrounding my father’s escape from Nazi Germany.”
Emotional Ebbs and Flows
The result is a work that is undeniably personal for the writer. On a musical level it is quite powerful and potent with Rosenthal having a clear pulse on dramatic pacing and invention. The opening number itself is quite haunting with Rosenthal playing up a tremendous sense of contrast between the world bustling around Erich and his own fractured psyche. The remembrances of his mother take on a slower pace with woodwinds coming to the fore, while the more percussive and brass-heavy sound dominates during the faster paced music that surrounds Erich’s present day. In this manner, Rosenthal immediately establishes the dual worlds of the story in a clear and concise musical manner.
The music ebbs and flows with the composer building up certain passages to strong emotional crescendos; this is noted first in Freddy asking his father why he doesn’t know his past during their first encounter, each phrase growing in intensity. This is echoed with a similar ensemble moments later wherein Erich finds himself surrounded by other Germans that increasingly attack him for being Jewish, the entire scene punctuated by repeated statements of “No More Jews.” In no way does Rosenthal link the behavior of the Nazis with that of Freddy, but the emotional impact of the two scenes, born out of intense emotional and musical crescendos, emphasizes the pressure that Erich feels around him in both present and past.
Rosenthal has a knack for strong melodic drive and this is particularly present in many of the solo numbers, each one building on its own toward a potent resolution (usually a high note); the best such examples of these moments are Freddy’s aria at the start of Act two, Lili’s solo passage in her final scene in which she declares her love, and a brilliant passage for Erich’s caretaker Carmelita as she explains her own immigration troubles. There is a clear-cut melodic sweep in each of these that leaves the listener ready to explode with applause at their close.
Likewise, there are gentle melodic moments (Erich’s family saying goodbye) contrasted with more energetic numbers (Erich’s boat ride to America) that allow for the story to develop in dynamic manner.
Some of the stronger moments in the opera from a musical standpoint come in the second half, particularly in a quartet that highlights the immigration challenges Erich and his mother face. The music frays anxiously with repetition of percussive knocks that grow incessantly disturbing when coupled with violent knocks from an increasingly hostile Nazi officer. In the midst of this panic, we hear a calm and collected immigration officer whose nonchalant manner intensifies the irritation one feels. It is perhaps the strongest piece in the entire show from a musical-dramatic standpoint, generating a complete narrative arc in a succinct but emotionally engaging manner.
The finale, a massive choral ensemble, is also breathtakingly beautiful in its cathartic grandeur and a strong way to bring the opera to a close.
From the pit (located behind the stage), conductor Adam Glaser managed the proceedings exceedingly well, especially when one considers that the singers were not facing him throughout the evening. There were moments when the ensemble’s volume overpowered the soloists, but those moments were few and far between in what was a propulsive musical performance.
The transitions from one musical moment to another were enhanced by Mikhaela Mahony’s strong direction. The stage had a few panels upstage with imprints of what seemed to be Herta’s letters. While the orchestra was partially visible through these panels, they also provided a passageway for characters to enter and exit the stage, furthering this emphasis on the connection with the past that Herta’s letters gave Erich in the present moment.
Characters thus shifted time periods quickly using minimal props to create specific settings. Mahony gave us enough information and allowed our imaginations to fill in the blanks; this was most apparent in the scene where Erich travels to America via boat. With no clear boat in the space, the ensemble pantomimed, creating the feel of traveling on an ocean liner; it was comical in some ways, but suited the tone of the moment to perfection.
There was a lot of activity on set, but Mahony also had a strong sense of stillness and when to simply trust the music and dramatic moment without over-stuffing it with activities. When Lili reminds Erich of her love in her final scene, the staging is minimal with Lili poised in the same spot as she sings to him. When Herta reads two important letters at two different junctures in the story, Mahony also keeps any potential visual distractions at bay, allowing the audience to immerse themselves with the character’s narrations on a deeper level; the effect is more potent as the suggestions made in the text allow our thoughts to drift and engage with how we might perceive those events taking place.
The lighting, as designed by Susan Roth, also allowed for the transitions to work seamlessly, using warmer and cooler colors to reflect the music’s own investigation of present-day Erich’s psyche. In Erich’s own past narrative, the lighting shifted from warmer palette to a cooler one, the color blue becoming increasingly prominent as his survivor’s guilt grew and grew.
A Riveting Cast
The cast was first-rate across the board with the character of Erich embodied by baritones Brian James Myer and Peter Kendall Clark. As the older version of the titular personage, Clark portrayed a broken man, barely able to move, but full of pain and anguish on his visage. His minimal gestures suggested a man trapped inside of himself and his vocal outbursts only added to the sense of emotional torture; repetitions of the word “Mama” at the start of the work each grew with anxiety and intensity. It is only at the close of the opera, after Erich forgives himself that Clark’s voice took on a lighter complexity, the weight literally gone; this vocal shift gave a sense of release even if it also emphasized his dying state.
Inversely, Myer’s younger interpretation of Erich started off with more assertive and aggressive quality, particularly in his confrontation with his father. Throughout this scene Myer’s voice had brilliant resonance that encapsulated his youthful drive. But as his guilt grew, his voice softened overall, taking on a gentler quality, though with the occasional aggressive outburst. You could feel the arc of the character growing weaker and weaker throughout, dovetailing nicely with the version of Old Erich that we come to know.
As his mother Herta, Jessica Tyler Wright sustained a solid vocal performance throughout. Her Herta never betrayed any sense of frailty, standing firm and strong throughout the various challenges she endured. Her repetitions of “Liebe Erich” always had a sweetness to them. The final letter explains her fate as she is relocated to a death camp. She doesn’t know that it’s a death camp and has no idea what her fate will be, but Wright injected some sharp accents on certain words to suggest frustration with the situation and ultimately add nuance to the text; on a purely textual level the letter retains a positive reassuring vibe (no doubt intended for Erich), but Wright’s performance allowed us a deeper perspective of how Herta might have experienced the situation both before and then after the fact.
As Erich’s wife Lili, Rachel Zatcoff portrayed a vibrant soprano. Her voice sustained a firmness of sound that really blossomed in her second Act aria with its treacherous tessitura.
Tenor Glenn Seven Allen might have stolen every scene that he was in as Freddy. His voice seemed completely at ease with every challenge Rosenthal threw his way (and there were several), his singing resplendent and full in the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. The highs were thrilling on every single occasion that he was tasked with pulling them off.
Sishel Claverie also displayed similar vocal command as Carmelia, Old Erich’s gentle caretaker. In her big aria, her voice just grew and grew in volume, the vibrato quickening as she climaxed with a potent high note. While there were no applause after the moment, her delivery undeniably merited it.
The remaining cast members, including Daniel Curran, Brian Montgomery, Susanne Burgess, Lianne M. Gennaco, Wyatt McManus, Robert Mellon, Tesia Kwarteng, David Kelleher-Flight, and Jordan Weatherston Pitts, all filled out the world of the story in a diverse array of roles. It was quite enthralling to watch many of them shift from being horrid Nazis and bullies to suddenly dancing about enjoying themselves. The opera is full of these emotional peaks and valleys and the ensemble as a whole navigated and immersed us in this arc perfectly.
Despite the story’s strong sense of drive and dramatic beats and the fine music and performance, the work is weighed down by the libretto itself.
One might understand the Rosenthals preoccupation with finding a simplicity of language to unite the sprawling events of the story and give it a sense of cohesion. But oftentimes the text struggles for two major reasons – the language is, for lack of a better word, overly simplistic and often seems stuck on the surface, never digging deeper to enrich our experiences of the characters.
For example, Erich’s expression of his love for Lili (his wife and future mother of his children) is that she’s pretty and he loves her. He repeats the word “pretty” far more times than necessary. When they have a daughter a few scenes later, Lili and Erich seem hung up on the word “pretty” and their entire duet also hinges on the constant repetition of that word (among others); their marriage celebration also amounts to “We’re married; here we go.”
We never get a deeper sense of why they are in love, besides the fact that Erich finds Lili pretty and they enjoy being together. But the Rosenthals never let the audience in on the couple’s dreams individually and together or even their fears now that they are married; this would provide greater profundity to Erich’s own guilt and ultimately the tragedy as a whole. The love duet between them, instead of its repetition of certain sentences and clumsy couplets (rhyming “it” with “it” in one instance) , might have provided such an opportunity to deepen their connection.
A similar thing happens in a confrontation with Erich’s father in which the protagonist repeatedly calls the business “junk,” the librettists never making any attempt to find other ways to describe his disdain for his father’s business that might prove more psychologically or emotionally revealing for the viewer. There are other reasons that Erich wants to leave and not take over his father’s business that could be aptly explored in the scene, but they are instead tabled in favor of a one-dimensional exchange. It limits the potency of the scene, undercuts an opportunity to further our understanding of who Erich’s father is, and ultimately never really develops the dramatic action past the first beat.
Interestingly, instead of exploring those emotional depths the characters potentially provide, the librettists put their emphasis on over-explaining the themes that they have put on full display.
For example, Herta’s final letter merely suggests at her fate as she notes that everyone is headed on a train to relocate elsewhere. It is clear that she has no idea where she is headed, but it is extremely haunting and moving because the audience DOES know. An unspoken and horrific reality takes over the atmosphere and there is no need to say anything more. Freddy, being from present-day Chicago must understand what it means, and as directed by Mahony, it is clear that he gets it. The audience feels it.
But the Rosenthals immediately undercut the dramatic moment by clarifying that she was sent to Sobibor death camp, just in case anyone was confused. Does the meaning of her letter really need to be spelled out for the viewer? Sometimes the silence speaks far louder and this is one such moment.
Another such moment comes right before this scene when Freddy meets up with Schmidt on his search for his grandmother’s fate. As the two head over to the synagogue they encounter two men bullying a woman for being a foreigner. It is a clear callback to how the Nazis treated Erich and his family and emphasizes that such evil pervades society to this day. Schmidt and Freddy stand up for the girl. There is an argument that could be made that the scene probably doesn’t need to be in the opera in the first place, but if the Rosenthals wanted to explore the continued cycle of violence and how this generation must not and will not sit around and watch, they have made their point. Having Schmidt suddenly proclaim how things are still very much the same and we need to change and stand up to the violence not only adds nothing to the moment dramatic, but feels overly didactic.
The fact that he then repeats the same message again in the opera’s final ensemble (a piece that outwardly cries for the audience to “Remember” and pass on what happened) adds to the sense of preachiness.
When It Does Work
The libretto works best through the power of suggestion, particularly in Herta’s letters where her own confusion at the world around her hits hard because of our own understanding in retrospective. A lot is said and felt in those moments for the audience.
Carmelita’s own aria is similarly effective because she suggests at her own dark experience in the immigration process and her own reasoning for not revealing these truths to her own children. Once more, we can but wonder at what she went through, but we don’t need to know every detail to understand the emotional turmoil; the music already does a lot of that heavy lifting for us, creating one of the most emotionally engaging moments in the opera.
Similarly, when the Rosenthals explore the difficult immigration process in a potent quartet, we are completely enthralled. Action is at the core of the moment with Erich and Herta doing their best to find a way for her to emigrate to the U.S. However, they constantly find issues from the immigration officers as well as a Nazi officer constantly harassing Herta.
At no point do the characters outwardly proclaim that the immigration system is terrible or does Herta shout out the dangers she faces; it is unnecessary to do any of those things. And yet, the entire sequence works because of our understanding of all those converging elements and more. The language is direct and precise. The character actions are clear. And the music only enhances the emotional beats, creating an organic whole that not only speaks to the issues of the time, but also addresses the massive elephant in the room relating to today’s situation. The scene holds up a mirror to us without needing to point to the mirror in case we didn’t see it.
It is ultimately a fine reminder that while music can elevate any text, a text can also deflate the overall impact of the music. In opera the two are meant to work together to explore story and character. In this case, complex and soaring music feels minimized by text that simply doesn’t register on the same level.
Fortunately, this is just the world premiere of the work and the musical and directorial quality, coupled with the work’s social and dramatic importance, make it a perfect piece for a revival. Hopefully such a revival might allow for major edits to the libretto.