A Mother’s Words Lift Dear Erich from the Maudlin and Mundane

United StatesUnited States Rosenthal, Dear Erich: Soloists, New York City Opera Orchestra / Adam Glaser (conductor), National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, New York, 12.1.2019. (RP)

Jessica Tyler Wright (Herta) & Brian James Myer (Young Erich)
in Ted Rosenthal’s Dear Erich © Sarah Shatz

Director – Mikhaela Mahony
Choreographer – Richard Stafford
Set Designer – John Farrell
Costume Designer – Janet O’Neill
Lighting Designer – Susan Roth
Wig and Make-Up Designer – Georgianna Eberhard

Herta – Jessica Tyler Wright
Young Erich – Brian James Myer
Old Erich – Peter Kendall Clark
Lili – Rachel Zatcoff
Freddy – Glenn Seven Allen
Carmelita – Sishel Claverie
Teacher, Nazi & Doctor Schmidt – Daniel Curran
Friedrich & Ensemble – Brian Montgomery
Hannah – Susanne Burgess
Cousin Gerda, US Immigration Officer & Ensemble – Lianne M. Gennaco
Cousin Ernst & Ensemble – Wyatt McManus
Nazi & Ensemble – Robert Mellon
Ensemble – Tesia Kwarteng, David Kelleher-Flight, Jordan Weatherson Pitts

The advance press and a radio interview with Ted Rosenthal, the composer of Dear Erich, boded well for an absorbing and moving theatrical experience. Commissioned by the New York City Opera to commemorate its 75th anniversary, the opera is based on more than 200 letters that the composer’s father, Erich Rosenthal, a young Jew who came to the US from Germany in 1938 to study at the University of Chicago, received from his mother, Herta. His futile attempts to bring her to America were bogged down in soulless bureaucracies on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. Herta and other members of his family were transported to Sobibór, a Nazi extermination camp in Poland, on 10 June 1942.

Erich Rosenthal never mentioned the letters to his son and, after his death in 1995, they sat unread for another 20 years. When translated, the voice of a grandmother that Ted Rosenthal never knew emerged from the letters, as well as the people and places of his father’s childhood. The letters are as powerful for what could not be expressed, as for the ordinary news of daily life that masked his mother’s ever-increasing desperation.

Sadly, the libretto that Rosenthal and his wife, Lesley Rosenthal, wrote embroiders reality with sappy fiction. The result is a sprawling, plodding, inchoate, maudlin affair that focuses chiefly on the bottled-up emotions which engendered three generations of father-son conflict. (Young Erich’s father, who died weakened and broken after incarceration in a Nazi jail, wanted him to remain in Germany and take over the family scrap metal business.) Recent family history was rewritten to bring about closure between the men; a group hug uniting the entire cast ends with a call to remember the past.

If the plot was meandering, the text was often pedestrian. A whiff of the family’s German heritage through the use of a few German words seemed an afterthought. Young Erich breaks free of his familial bonds with ‘I need to go. I need to grow’. Rhymes involving German numbers culminated with the zehn coupled with mundane. A paraphrase of Gertrude Stein’s description of Oakland, California – ‘there is no there there’ – resonated in ways the Rosenthals and the team of writers they brought in to assist, Barry Singer, E. M. Lewis and Edward Einhorn, surely could not have intended.

The words Herta wrote to her son, however, were spare and beautiful, inspiring Rosenthal’s most compelling music. The translations by Dr. Peter Schmidt, whom Ted Rosenthal met on a visit to Germany, were tight and cogent. Soprano Jessica Tyler Wright as Herta was splendid, bringing the first act to an emotionally raw conclusion as her desperation mounted and she faced the inevitable. Rosenthal’s affection for his father was also revealed in the music that he wrote for the conflicted young Erich, poignantly captured in a complex, multi-faceted characterization by the rich-voiced baritone Brian James Myer.

Comparisons to the plight of immigrants in modern day America and Germany were also drawn. The scenes where German thugs taunted a woman wearing a veil seemed forced, but Sishel Claverie as Carmelita, the caregiver who tends to Old Erich, gave powerful voice to an immigrant’s decision to forget the past and not burden her children with it. Rosenthal was at his best here, as he was in the soliloquies that he composed for Herta and the Young Erich, displaying a true talent for instilling music and words with emotional depth.

Rachel Zatcoff as Lili, the beautiful girl who distracted him from his mother’s urgent plight, was likewise a real flesh-and-blood creature. Ambivalence crept in with the portraits of Erich as an ill old man (baritone Peter Kendall Clark); his ungrateful, petulant son, Freddy (tenor Glenn Seven Allen); and his daughter, Hannah (soprano Susanne Burgess), who has transcended angst through mediation. Allen poured everything he had into the final scene, in which he details the contents of his mother’s final letter, which never left Germany, to his dying father. After that it was sort of all slappy happy, feel good music.

Rosenthal is a jazz pianist, composer, teacher and past winner of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. In Dear Erich, he employed a wide spectrum of musical idioms and, at his best, he transcended style and wrote from the heart. In his eclectic mode, the most successful were the jazz, big-band and Latin infused sounds from the 1930s and 1940s. Less so were the bland operetta and musical theater sounds of the ensembles.

The musical values were high, with conductor Adam Glaser and the band giving a polished performance, and the young ensemble giving it their all. The production was simple and straightforward. Nazi swastikas and thugs chilled with every appearance. The women’s period costumes, especially their shoes, were particularly attractive.

Herta’s letters were displayed on banners that framed the action; looking at them was as moving as hearing them sung. Rosenthal wrote in the program that setting his grandmother’s words to music was intense and magnified their emotion, and that hearing them sung was incredibly moving. Indeed it was, but that perhaps accounted for 15 minutes or so of a two-hour opera.

Rick Perdian

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