The letters were in a box, neatly filed with duplicate copies, carefully indexed and preserved. They were in German and dated from 1938 to 1941.
After that, silence.
When Ted Rosenthal found them while he and his sister were cleaning out his recently deceased father’s house in 1995, he had no idea what they were. He didn’t read German, his father had never mentioned them, and Rosenthal had no way of knowing that they would lead him on an artistic journey that would culminate on Jan. 9 with the world premiere of a jazz opera, “Dear Erich.”
Rosenthal is unusually well-suited for the task. He is an acclaimed jazz pianist, the second musician to win the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Competition, and a gifted accompanist of singers who also has played with Gerry Mulligan, Art Farmer and Bob Brookmeyer. But his academic training at the Manhattan School of Music was in classical piano, and he has composed piano concertos and music for the Alvin Ailey Dance Company.
Perhaps it was inevitable that when he finally learned the story behind that box of letters he would think of it as a subject for a jazz opera. But first he had to be able to read the letters.
Serendipity, he recalled in a telephone interview last week, solved that problem.
“We were invited to a ceremony honoring my [paternal] grandmother Herta in Bad Camberg, the small German town in which she had lived before the war,” he said. (She died in Sobibor.) “It was the rededication of a small Jewish religious school. It was heartening to see the whole town involved.”
Among the local dignitaries who were most active in the ceremony was Dr. Peter Schmidt, the head of the town’s historical society. When Rosenthal mentioned the letters to him, he offered to translate some of them. The musician scanned and e-mailed a half-dozen, and a few months later received translations from Schmidt.
What Rosenthal read stunned him, moved him to tears, then inspired him to begin work on turning them into a musical drama.
When the Nazis imposed their racial laws banning Jews from almost all occupations and educational institutions, Erich Rosenthal, Ted’s father, was expelled from school. He was fortunate enough to be awarded a fellowship by the University of Chicago, and in March 1938 he left Germany.
“My father received letters weekly, sometimes twice a week, mostly from Herta,” Rosenthal said. “There were a few postscripts from his father, too, but he died right after Kristallnacht.”
This was a revelation to Rosenthal. His father, who became a prominent sociologist in the United States, never discussed his past or his family.
When Schmidt offered to translate the remainder of the letters, Rosenthal gratefully accepted.
“He didn’t know there were about 200 of them,” he noted with a sheepish grin. “It was an amazing process. By the time he was done, he knew more about my family than I did.”
What Rosenthal knew as he read the letters was that he had a new project.
“I’ve always been interested in exploring longer [musical] forms and collaborations, and this seemed like an ideal story for an operatic treatment,” he said. “There’s an intensity that comes from both the musical and dramatic sides of it, creating a two-hour dramatic work. It draws on both sides of my musical interests and background: Erich’s coming to Chicago and courting my mother in jazz clubs, the 180-degree difference from his German background and what’s happening there at the time. He finds democracy, freedom, spontaneity.”
As the piece grew, Rosenthal found himself in touch with an old chum from his high school days in Great Neck, L.I., Michael Capasso, the managing director of the New York City Opera. When an arm injury forced Rosenthal into an extended break from playing in 2016, giving him the time to focus completely on the opera, Capasso found himself fielding occasional questions from his old friend. As the NYCO headed towards its 75th anniversary, Capasso saw “Dear Erich” as a project in which the opera company could take part. Several workshops and much writing and re-writing later, the developing piece became a full-fledged reality.
Given Rosenthal’s experience with singers, writing for voice was not the hardest part of creating “Dear Erich.” As Capasso said in a telephone interview last week, “Ted has a great gift for melody, but also a great gift for writing for the voice.”
The real challenge, Rosenthal readily admitted, was dealing with the complexity of the story itself.
“The things that were newest to me came with the dramatic side of the piece,” he said. “Crafting the story, trying to hone in on the themes, making sure the themes stood out. I needed to capture Erich’s experience as an immigrant — the tension; the push and pull of building a new life while trying to build a new family; not knowing what has happened to his family back in Germany; the immigrant experience and how that’s expressed; the survivor guilt — how they are portrayed in the music.”
The parallels to the contemporary immigration controversy come into play as well, and Rosenthal doesn’t shy away from them. He said, “There’s a piece called ‘Immigration Song’ in which you see how the Americans are not going to let in any more Jews, that the bars [against admission to the U.S.] get higher and higher. And you wonder, ‘What of these people of today who are victims; what are the ramifications going to be for them in the future?’”
Finally, though, “Dear Erich” is a personal story, one that at the start was painfully close to its creator. And yet the process of creation provided its own balm.
Rosenthal explained, “The moments that still get to me are when I hear Herta’s letters being sung — they are so real and so painful. But part of the process of giving the piece dramatic shape is coming from the facts. Over time the characters have become characters. [The opera’s] Erich has some flaws he may not have had in real life. At this point they are really characters in an opera.”
And not just letters in a box.
“Dear Erich,” a jazz opera with music by Ted Rosenthal and a libretto by Lesley and Ted Rosenthal, will have its world premiere Jan. 9, 10, 12 and 13 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (36 Battery Place), co-produced by the New York City Opera and the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. For information, go to https://nycopera.com/dear-erich/.