Ted Rosenthal has a long and impressive résumé. The 58-year-old pianist was an early winner of the prestigious Thelonious Monk Competition and went on to a successful career as a solo artist and accompanist to singers like Ann Hampton Callaway and Helen Merrill, as well as to horn players like Gerry Mulligan and Art Farmer. He’s composed piano concertos and collaborated with dance companies. Now, he adds opera librettist to his c.v. Inspired by the discovery of hundreds of letters that Rosenthal’s grandmother had sent to his father from Nazi Germany between 1938 and 1941, the pianist wrote Dear Erich, a jazz opera whose world premiere will be presented by the New York City Opera as a co-production with the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, adjacent to Battery Park in NYC, Jan. 9-15. Rosenthal spoke about the project with us while on the Jazz Cruise, during which he performed a few of its songs, including one composition sung on the ship by Kurt Elling. You can learn more at www.dearerich.com. —LEE MERGNER
JazzTimes: What was the origin of the project?
Ted Rosenthal: There were two almost simultaneous events that happened. One was that we were invited to my grandmother’s hometown. They invited about 30 descendants of the Jewish community of a tiny town called Bad Homburg, about an hour from Frankfurt, for the reopening of a Jewish school. Sort of on a lark, I knew that I have this box of letters sitting in the attic of the house where I live now that originally was sitting in the attic of the house that I grew up in. My father never discussed them. They were in German, so I didn’t have the wherewithal or that much interest at that point to pursue them. They just got moved after he passed away in 1995, and they were now sitting in another attic.
When we were invited to this German town, I said, “Let me take this box out of the attic and maybe I’ll have them take a look at a couple of letters and tell me what’s in there.” I ended up in a flurry of activity to get ready for the trip and I left them on my desk in New York. But my older stepson took some iPhone photos of about six of them. He emailed me, I forwarded them on to the co-president of the historical society, a guy named Dr. Peter Schmidt, who is an actual character in the opera now, and he offered to translate them. About three months later, the letters just showed up in my email with the translations. My heart just sank because these were people I knew virtually nothing about. I knew my grandmother’s name [Herta] and I knew she perished in the Holocaust. And I know my grandfather’s name—Theodore, like me—and I knew that he was taken on Kristallnacht, when they rounded up the Jewish men, brought them to an internment camp. They weren’t death camps yet. And he got sick and died in a Jewish hospital. They didn’t quite know what to do yet with the Jewish people, what their horrible plans ended up being. And that’s about it. That’s about as much as [my father] ever discussed.
Who wrote the letters and to whom were they originally sent?
The letters were written to my father from Germany. He left in March of 1938, a few months before Kristallnacht. My grandmother would write him weekly, sometimes twice a week. A few other members of the family, including my grandfather, would occasionally write little postscripts. But there was a trove of over 200 letters. I said to Dr. Schmidt, “This is an incredible experience. Would you mind translating more?” At that same point that I was getting this newfound consciousness about my roots, I had to have an operation on my arm. I put composing on the front burner. I got this idea that this could be a jazz opera.
Clearly there’s a powerful story here, but why a jazz opera, as opposed to a musical?
In my compositional life, I have been interested in extended forms and I’ve written two jazz piano concertos. I write plenty of tunes—my trio plays them, small groups play them, etc. But the idea, based on my classical training background, of writing longer forms like a concerto or a symphony or something beyond a tune has always been a part of my musical interest. I’ve always felt that jazz players and composers should be doing more things outside the jazz world.
I saw the list of the writers involved with this project. It was like a Hollywood screenplay.
There were some collaborators in the beginning and some of their work is included. My wife did a good chunk of it, I’ve done a good chunk of it, and another good chunk of it is the text of the letters. I’ve got to tell you, setting the music to my grandmother’s words was quite profound and there were a lot of tears flowing in the Rosenthal house.
Does it work just as well for an opera singer to sing the material as it does for a more jazz-focused singer like Kurt Elling?
We’ve done two readings with New York City Opera that they have casted, backed by a jazz piano trio. These have been opera singers, trained singers, mostly fairly young—in their 30s or 40s, mostly—and they have some knowledge, appreciation, interest in jazz and/or musical theater. They’re not coming at it from this “I’m-an-Italian-opera-diva [kind of thing].” I think within the context of the opera, it’s going to be opera singers that have a feeling for jazz.
My general conception of this piece is very loosely like a template—like a Porgy and Bess. Because Porgy and Bess has all these great songs that we love to play: “I Loves You, Porgy,” “Summertime,” etc. But it is an opera, sung start to finish. And it’s usually done by opera singers. That’s kind of where I’m going with it. I am super-thrilled that Kurt or hopefully Ann Hampton Callaway and others are going to sing these songs on their own. Because the way it’s constructed, there are a dozen, maybe even more, songs that you could just sing as a song.
What is it that you learned about your father that you didn’t know from this whole process?
As is very typical with Holocaust survivors, they didn’t want to talk about it. In this opera we have themes, some of which—having to do with immigration—are very relevant today, because the Americans, by not letting the Jewish people emigrate, it was a death sentence. In these letters, my grandmother is saying, “Oh, I went to the embassy in Stuttgart, the American embassy.” You read in the libretto this immigration song, how they keep raising the bar: “You need a higher guarantee … you need more relatives. Who is going to sign for you? Who has a job? Who could pay for you?” It was a post-Depression period for Germany.
That touches on a very current topic, chain migration—family members bringing their family from another country to join them.
In the case of Nazi Germany and America, literally millions of lives could have been saved. When you asked me what I learned, some of the heartbreaking nitty-gritty detail—like that my grandmother was trying to get over here, at one point she was literally packing, making a list of what she could take—[I was] just getting a sense of what my father must have felt, that survivor guilt. One of the things is not knowing … because he never knew what happened to her.
Well, he knew she perished. We only learned last year where she went. It was the Sobibór camp, the same as in the opera. It’s in Poland. We learned this last year through the internet, this whole explosion of information and records getting unsealed and so on. The not knowing and not being able to help [must have been hard]. He could try, but he was a student. What got him over [to the U.S.] was a fellowship.
I’ve learned some of the details of which I knew nothing. And then just getting a sense of maybe why he wouldn’t want to share it. Because you even get past this horrible Holocaust experience, you just get to: What does it feel like to be an immigrant? Which many people experience. Do you look back at your homeland? Or do you look forward to your new life? Do you try to merge the two? All those issues.
Do you think any of this affected your relationship with your father?
Absolutely. He was a proud immigrant and loved the U.S., but by him not really sharing his roots … You’re a kid or even a young adult, you don’t think about it. But looking back on it, I can see that there were things that might be a part of other people’s “normal” childhood that I didn’t have. But that was okay because I was obsessed with music. He didn’t fully understand it, but he supported it.
I’m curious about the music to represent your grandmother’s side.
When Erich comes to Chicago, you hear jazzy music, you hear the sounds of freedom, democracy, the hopeful sounds of America, the enticing sounds of America, the overwhelming sounds of America. The music representing [Herta’s] side is a little more European-influenced; I love those harmonies and sounds of the early 20th century. I like to call it a jazz opera because it’s got melodies that I think people are actually humming when they finish hearing them.
What kind of feedback have the singers been giving you?
They like to sing it. It’s gratifying to sing. It’s got melodies and the way the text is set, it works for them, it works for the voice. And their whole orientation toward drama—which is a little bit out of what the average jazz guys are thinking about—some of their orientation has been fascinating. When they’re learning the music, they actually sing it better if they have a better dramatic sense of what they’re supposed to be doing. “Tell me who my character is, what is his motivation?”
Have you seen it actually grow or change because of what the trio and singers have done in the readings?
Oh yes, they bring the music to life. There are some lines that you thought had a certain meaning and maybe it takes on a new meaning, or sometimes things are more heightened when they’re sung. When it’s the first time you hear it sung, you realize, “Oh boy, that was pretty brutal, what they just sang.” It’s much tougher and hits you in the face, whereas when you’re just reading it, you’re like, “Oh, yeah, that’s not as impactful.”
That was very interesting in the process of coaching them, and then working up to the reading, where they’re still what they call “on book,” looking at the music. But they start to add the acting anyway. And it starts to jump off the page. The one who’s singing, I’m thinking about what they’re singing, but seeing the other one react to what they’re singing … But they’ve all seemed to really appreciate the jazz, and they’re bopping their heads when it’s the right time to be doing that. And the trio is acclimating itself, because there’s a certain flexibility you need with singers who like to stretch the time and sing things that are not always right on the pulse. So we have to make the two genres kind of meet together. Sometimes I lecture the singers: “Listen, guys, you’ve got to sing on time, there’s a beat here, there’s a groove here.” And sometimes I tell the trio: “Listen, guys, you’ve got to be flexible. Don’t just steamroll over this because they want to take a little time—it feels good in their voice, and it feels good for the drama.” It’s kind of like being bilingual, both cultures speaking to each other.
I have to say, it’s been a ton of work, incredibly absorbing. But there are these gratifying moments when it all comes together, like the whole is greater than the sum of its parts—when the opera singers are giving their rich voice and dramatic bravura to something. And when those moments occur, it’s really, really exhilarating.