Rewrites, Rewrites, and another showcase.
After a crescendo of creative activity leading up to the New York City Opera reading of “Dear Erich” in June, the exhilaration of a successful production was soon replaced with the reality of the need for expansion and development of the story, refining the drama, and rewrites. This has proven to be a much tougher phase than “Round 1.” I’ve consulted with many people with dramatic expertise. They have been generous with their time and expertise, and provided me with many insights into the making of a successful drama. It’s also sometimes bewildering how differently people see the story. “More this, less that,” is often countered with another expert opinion, “Less this, more that…” You can substitute “Son,” “Father,” “Wife,” “Refugees,” etc. instead of “this or that,” and you’ll see what I mean. It’s a creative process, and there is often no “right” answer. Ultimately, like most things, you have to trust your gut. So while trying to keep an open mind, I ultimately go with my gut about what’s right for this jazz opera.
The good news is I, with my wife Lesley’s help, am very close to finishing Dear Erich V. 2 and New York City Opera plans to present another reading in early 2018. We are still on track for a 2019 New York City Opera premiere!
In mid-October, I was thrilled to be able present excerpts of “Dear Erich” for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum New York Gala Dinner. We had 6 singers and a jazz trio. Here are my remarks to the 500 attendees. They were accompanied by projections of family photos, letters and other visual images associated with the opera.
“It is an honor and a pleasure to present to you a sneak preview of my jazz opera, Dear Erich. Dear Erich is being commissioned by NYC Opera, and will be premiered in 2019 as part of NYC Opera’s 75th Anniversary season.
Dear Erich is inspired by the more than 200 newly discovered letters written in Germany between 1938 and 1941 by my grandmother, Herta Rosenthal to my father, Erich Rosenthal. My father was a Jewish academic, who was able to escape Nazi Germany to the U.S. shortly before Kristallnacht by virtue of a fellowship he received to the University of Chicago.
Dear Erich tells this story – with plenty of dramatic license – of a family’s dual fates: Erich’s journey to a new life in the new world, the jazzy new world, and his family’s cruel demise by the Nazis where he was powerless to help. Dear Erich also reflects on the impact of the Holocaust on the children of survivors. The opera’s scenes of immigration and refugees in crisis cue up moral dilemmas that resound to this day.
A central theme of Dear Erich is survivor guilt. Can one be able to live and enjoy life fully while others close to you are in harm’s way and ultimately cannot be saved? How much can one do to help another in need?
Erich’s unwillingness to share his family history, chiefly due to his survivor guilt, inability to save them and not knowing their final fate, leaves his children feeling cut off from the past and ungrounded in the present. But in his final days, Erich is finally willing to share himself and his past leading to a reconciliation just before his death. The children go on to help solve the mystery of their grandmother Herta’s demise, and honor – and rescue – her memory. Herta comes back to thank them but also to warn future generations to stand guard against hate.
Like the operatic story, my father never discussed these letters which sat in a box for 40 years in the attic of the house I grew up in. After my father’s death, I took the box of letters to the house I now live in where they also sat in the attic for another 10 years. In the fall of 2014, my wife and co-librettist, Lesley Rosenthal and I visited the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and when we arrived at the final research room, I typed Herta Rosenthal into the computer and was astonished that there was a record of her and more information about her history than I or my father had previously known. This discovery in the museum’s reference room rekindled my interest in my family history and I received further leads from the museum to gather more information about my grandmother.
Fortuitously, a few months later, we were invited, along with other descendants of the Jewish community, to the opening of a refurbished Jewish school in my grandmother Herta’s home town of Camberg, a small German village an hour northeast of Frankfurt. I mentioned the letters to the head of the Camberg Historical Society, Dr. Peter Schmidt, and he graciously offered to translate them. I don’t think at first he realized there were over 200 of them! As the translations came in, a family, my family, that I knew almost nothing about, came to life before my eyes. It was, and continues to be, an amazing, touching, intense and at times, emotionally exhausting experience. It is also inspirational, to the point that it inspired me to compose a jazz opera based on the letters and the events surrounding them.
This evening, you will hear 3 excerpts from Dear Erich. The first is called, “Too Many Jews.” This scene depicts the transformation of the Jews going from assimilated, accepted members of German society, toward their gradual and systematic isolation and being stripped of all human dignity. Erich is in school with his classmates, at first welcomed and accepted, but over time is ridiculed and ultimately kicked out.
The 2nd piece is titled “Immigration Song.” This piece depicts the strenuous attempts by Herta and her family to satisfy the requirements of the US Immigration Office for emigration to the US. Erich is also trying to help at the US Immigration office in Chicago. In the meantime the Nazi’s are tightening the noose around the Jewish community and the walls are closing in fast. Ultimately Herta and Erich’s attempts are futile as the Immigration officer is indifferent to the life threatening situation Herta faces.
The 3rd piece is titled “Always Believe, Always Remember.” This piece speaks to the power of remembrance. How the act of remembering keeps family members and loved ones alive. And how the memories of what happened, along with vigilance and courage, will help prevent this type of tragedy from happening again.
Ultimately, when it’s performed by NYC Opera in 2019, I hope Dear Erich will work, not only as a work of art, but as an act of remembrance, and as a teaching tool for future generations.
I hope you enjoy this performance of 3 pieces from Dear Erich.”