From January 9 to 13, the New York City Opera (NYCO), in association with the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, offered the world premiere presentation of Ted Rosenthal’s “Dear Erich,” a powerful remembrance of the Holocaust, in a musical idiom that seamlessly evokes and combines jazz, classical, period and ethnic dance, and music theatre. Ted and Lesley Rosenthal wrote the libretto, inspired by wrenching letters from World War Two-era Germany, written by Herta Rosenthal, the composer’s grandmother, to his father, Erich, in America, kept secret from Erich’s children for decades and, unsurprisingly, ending dramatically abruptly.
Responsible for City Opera’s superb realization of Rosenthal’s vision were Adam Glaser, leading an 11-piece orchestra; director Mikhaela Mahony; choreographer Richard Stafford; designers John Farrell (basic sets), Janet O’Neill (period costumes), Susan Roth (lighting), and Georgianna Eberhardt (wigs and makeup); and a high-level ensemble of soloists and choristers. The first of the four performances is considered here.
The opera recounts the true story of mother and son, fathers and sons, siblings, spouses, and how history, repeating and ever fraught, affects them. Young Erich (Brian James Myer) escapes from a Germany, rife with anti-Semitism, in 1938, thanks to a scholarship to the University of Chicago. His classes in Wetzlar end with his classmates wielding swastikas and with his expulsion—in his classes in Chicago, he’s the foreigner: the energy in both is similar, but its use and results, so very different. In her letters, Herta (a commanding Jessica Tyler Wright) gives him a literally blow-by-blow description of the increasingly horrific situation back home in Germany. His father Friedrich (Brian Montgomery) fails to lure Erich into the soon-doomed family business—older Erich (Peter Kendall Clark) likewise fails to communicate with his son Freddy (Glenn Seven Allen) and daughter Hannah (Susanne Burgess), named for the grandparents they know nothing of, about the past that haunts him so, and parallel father-and-son clashes reflect this. A farewell quartet makes its mark: Erich’s cousins Gerda (Lianne M. Gennaco) and Ernst (Wyatt McManus) bid him goodbye with a tender waltz, while Friedrich’s line conveys struggle and Herta’s, relief that Erich will escape the roiling situation in Europe.
In a brilliant stroke, older and younger Erich are usually present, behind a scrim, to observe what’s happening to them at that other age.
Soul mate Lili (Rachel Zatcoff) and young Erich enjoy romantic musical exchanges, a Jewish wedding that juxtaposes swing and a traditional hora, and a tender lullaby for their new-born daughter, while Erich’s guilt—what’s happening to his mother? did he try hard enough to get her out of German?—is omnipresent beneath the joy. In a rat-a-tat-tat quartet, Erich and Herta wrangle with American and German bureaucrats, both crisply played by Gennaco, while Herta also contends with a forbidding Nazi (Robert Mellon). Suddenly the letters end.
As his life ebbs away, older Erich agonizes over the past he cannot escape, and Freddy, over the past so long concealed from him. In a Latin-flavored solo, Erich’s nurse, Carmelita (Sishel Claverie), tries to explain that there secrets one keeps from one’s “children of America,” but Freddy heads to Wetzlar, looking for answers, and what he finds there, thanks to the Historical Society’s Dr. Schmidt (Daniel Curran, also portraying the contrasting German and American Professors, and shooing away neo-Nazis harassing an “Ausländer”—an outsider or foreigner—a young Muslim woman, played by Tesia Kwarteng), proves surprising. At the strangely “Liebestod”-like climax, the cast exhorts us to “Remember.”
The next world premiere City Opera will present is Iain Bell and Mark Campbell’s “Stonewall,” from June 21 to 24, at the Rose Theater, marking the Pride season and Stonewall 50, along with performances of Laura Kaminsky, Campbell, and Kimberly Reed’s “As One,” from May 30 to June 8 at Merkin Concert Hall. Visit www.nycopera.com
for further information.