Recalling Doomed Mother’s Letters To Her ‘Dear Erich’

Peter Kendall Clark, Jessica Tyler Wright, and Brian James Myer in the ‘Dear Erich’ at New York City Opera.
(Production photos by Sarah Shatz)
By Susan Brodie

NEW YORK — January, once a dead period for opera in New York, has become prime time for lyric experimentation. Since 2012, it’s been fueled by the Prototype Festival of new opera and expanded by National Sawdust’s Ferus Festival of “untamed voices.” This year, the reconstituted New York City Opera joined the scene, offering a new work, Dear Erich, based on letters between a Jewish immigrant to America and the mother he left behind in Germany. It premiered on Jan. 9 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, in a co-production with the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, the oldest continuously producing theater company in the U.S.

Jessica Tyler Wright as Herta and Brian James Myer as Young Erich

Founded in 1943 as “the people’s opera,” New York City Opera established itself as an accessible home to hear American artists and new as well as traditional opera repertoire. Its 1966 move to the newly built Lincoln Center was both a blessing and a curse, on artistic and financial levels. In its last years, money and management issues led to the company’s bankruptcy and dissolution in 2013. A new administration took over the company name – and its debt – in 2016, and NYCO rose from the ashes as a leaner and more nimble troupe.  The company now presents a smaller season of works, mostly rare or new, in short runs throughout the year and in different venues around town.

NYCO’s newest project, Dear Erich, is a “jazz opera” based on a personal story. Its composer, Ted Rosenthal, is a much-recorded and well-traveled musician, both as soloist and with his jazz trio. He has composed songs, concertos, and ballet music, but he had never considered writing an opera before family history provided irresistible inspiration.

In 1995, he found a cache of letters written over half a century earlier between his father, a recent immigrant to the U.S., and his grandmother during the three years between Kristallnacht and the deportation of Rosenthal’s grandmother to a death camp. The letters lay unread in an attic for decades until Rosenthal and his sister were invited to the opening of a Jewish school in their father’s hometown near Frankfurt. Rosenthal went and showed a few of the letters to the local officials. He ended up with translations of all 200 letters, written between 1938 and 1942, and was stunned to learn at last about his father’s early life and his own heritage. A chance conversation with his friend Michael Capasso, general director of NYCO, led to a commission for his first opera, a very new experience for him.

Rosenthal handled the challenges of creating a narrative and libretto from a set of letters by enlisting help from his wife, Lesley Rosenthal, chief operating officer of the Juilliard School. Additional lyrics were provided by Barry Singer, E.M. Lewis, and Edward Einhorn. Rosenthal changed names and telescoped action, letting the point of view shift between the two letter writers and Erich’s children, who 50 years later are coming to terms with the reasons for their father’s reticence about the past. Large ensemble numbers alternate with quieter soliloquies and small ensembles. Not all styles worked equally well, but there were very powerful moments.

Robert Mellon as a Nazi and Jessica Tyler Wright as Herta

The story begins and ends at the deathbed of Erich, a retired scholar, and alternates between the present, with his two adult children torn between love and exasperation, and flashbacks to Erich’s earlier life, created onstage by another actor. As Old Erich rereads the letters and speaks to his mother, Herta, we learn the story of his travels to Chicago on an academic fellowship just before Kristallnacht. During a period of three years he establishes himself, falls in love, and marries, while his mother faithfully writes of life at home, including the growing persecution of the Jews. Act I ends with the letter announcing his father’s death. Erich tries to arrange Herta’s immigration to America, but before she can obtain a visa, the letters stop. In the climactic scene, we hear the final, unsent letter, describing the family’s imminent trip to be “resettled in the East.”

A simple set of handwriting-covered translucent fabric panels serves both as backdrop and as screen through which characters from past or future view the action on stage (direction by Mikhaela Mahony, sets by John Farrell, lighting by Susan Roth). Chairs and a table are minimal but effective props for settings like offices, school rooms, transportation, and home interiors.

The score is a hybrid in many respects. The 11-piece instrumental ensemble (conducted by Adam Glaser) is an expanded jazz trio, with strings and winds adding color and occasional gravitas. Larger set pieces had energy and drive reminiscent of West Side Story. Arias take the form of ballads or, less often, dance pieces, as when Erich’s cousin bids farewell in waltz time, and Carmelita (Erich’s father’s nurse) sings “I am haunted by guilt” to a tango beat. Instrumental interludes, enlivened visually by Richard Stafford’s simple but  effective choreography, bridge transitions in the story.

Scenes between young Erich and Lili (Brian James Myer and Rachel Zatcoff) were bouncy and upbeat, with the flavor and syllabic text setting of Michel Legrand’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, though too often hampered by painfully simplistic lyrics. The most compelling scenes involved multi-layered action, especially the sequence in the second act where Erich and Herta try in vain to arrange her escape from Germany. A single actor (Lianne M. Gennaco) plays both German and American bureaucrats who frustrate Herta in Germany and Erich in Chicago with repeated requests for more paperwork. Between visits, Nazi soldiers harass Herta and tell her to “Get out now.” The scene pointedly recalls similar trials experienced by today’s immigrants to the U.S.

Ted Rosenthal (Cathy Lillian Photography)

Scenes in Old Erich’s sickroom are less compelling because the characterizations of his adult children are less worked out. As a result, the theme of the gulf between children and parents doesn’t come across as persuasively, even when young Peter sings longingly of wanting to know his father better. The finale, a stirring ensemble hymn to the necessity of remembrance, seemed excessively grandiose next to the grace and understated poignancy of Herta’s final letter, bidding farewell to her son before being shipped to the Sobibor death camp. But the audience appeared to appreciate the Broadway-style ending.

The largely young cast made a well-matched ensemble. Though most of the singers have opera credentials (many are NYCO regulars), all have experience in musical theater, which could be heard in their bright, text-oriented singing (cast was not miked)

The strongest impression was made by Jessica Tyler Wright, who played Herta. In voice and demeanor, she reminded me a bit of Broadway’s Kelli O’Hara, who has also sung Dorabella at the Met. Wright’s serenity and sweetness fleshed out a character known only from letters, and her Herta exuded quiet dignity. Sishel Claverie (Carmelita) shone in her aria about why parents, especially immigrants, protect their children from the cruel truth of their past.

Playing Young Erich, Myer was persuasive as the successful Jewish immigrant wracked with survivor guilt, a quality even better conveyed by Peter Kendall Clark as Old Erich. Zatcoff’s Lili provided warmth and optimism, though the edginess in her upper register was distracting. Glenn Seven Allen and Susanne Burgess valiantly fleshed out the lightly sketched roles of Old Erich’s children.

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts, and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at @Susan Brodie (Twitter) and Toi Toi Toi!