"Dear Erich: A Jazz Opera" by Ted & Lesley Rosenthal - New York City Article
"Dear Erich: A Jazz Opera" by Ted & Lesley Rosenthal Follow @nyccitiview
New York City Opera presents the world premiere of
“Dear Erich: A Jazz Opera”
Music by Ted Rosenthal; Libretto by Ted & Lesley Rosenthal
Museum of Jewish Heritage
36 Battery Place
Thursday January 10, Saturday January 12, Sunday January 13 (matinee)
The holocaust is such a devastatingly huge subject, and such a much-covered one, that it might seem to be impossible to find anything meaningful and personal to say about it, especially something new. In the category of literature about that particular subject, Ted Rosenthal’s Dear Erich may be the most satisfyingly personal statement about the holocaust since Art Spiegelman published his groundbreaking graphic novel Maus about 30 years ago. Like Maus, Dear Erich tells its story in a language all its own: where Maus used a visual language, Dear Erich employs a musical one.
Subtitled “A Jazz Opera,” the work is just as well described as a chamber opera, as opposed to a grand opera. (Someone has yet to explain to me why La Boheme, a story about artists dying in an garret needs to be told on such an epic scale, with a literal cast of thousands.) The cast is small, the orchestra is relatively small, and the chorus is not only small but sparingly used. And there’s both jazz and opera to be heard, the orchestral music suggests the so-called “cool jazz” associated with Mr. Rosenthal’s former boss, the late Gerry Mulligan, but the voices are distinctly operatic tenors, baritones, and soprani - more Marilyn Horne than Lena Horne or Shirley Horn.
The story is a gripping one, told mostly in a series of flashbacks, about a student who escapes to America before Kristallnacht and thus survives while his family perishes; his “survivor guilt” becomes a kind of crippling PTSD that causes him to completely shut down emotionally. Like those piece of paper upon which Schindler’s list is typed on, the physical letters from his mother (which always begin, “Erich, lieben…”) become the central point that the story focuses on to drive the plot forward.
Mr. Rosenthal uses jazz as a vital element not available to the composers of most operas we know and love: the German sections are more Germanic (I thought briefly of Marc Blitzstein), the “simplistic, unrealistic daughter” (who’s “into meditation”) gets a lighthearted waltz, the young Nazis get a more militaristic march, the passage to America and Chicago is underscored by a Bernstein-esque blend of Broadway and bebop - and this was the only time I ever thought of musical theater.
Dear Erich is a moving story, compellingly told, with beautiful music and an excellent cast. It’s said that Art Spiegelman didn’t like the term “graphic novel” applied to Maus and Dear Erich may not even need the subtitle “Jazz Opera.” I, for one, prefer to think of it as an Opera opera.
Photo by Sarah Shatz
Author: Will Friedwald
Will Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, VANITY FAIR and PLAYBOY magazine and reviews current shows for THE CITIVIEW NEW YORK. He also is the author of nine books, including the award-winning A BIOGRAPHICAL GUIDE TO THE GREAT JAZZ AND POP SINGERS, SINATRA: THE SONG IS YOU, STARDUST MELODIES, TONY BENNETT: THE GOOD LIFE, LOONEY TUNES & MERRIE MELODIES, and JAZZ SINGING. He has written over 600 liner notes for compact discs, received ten Grammy nominations, and appears frequently on television and other documentaries. He is also a consultant and curator for Apple Music.
SINATRA: THE SONG IS YOU - NEW REVISED EDITION (Chicago Review Press, May 2018)