Ted Rosenthal Discusses His Resonant Jazz Opera, 'Dear Erich,' Before Its World Premiere

Jan 4, 2019

New York City Opera will present the world premiere of Ted Rosenthal's jazz opera Dear Erich on Jan. 9, 10, 12 and 13 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, at 36 Battery Place in New York City. Rosenthal sat down to talk about the piece with WBGO's morning host, Gary Walker.

Pianist, composer and educator Ted Rosenthal chats with WBGO morning host Gary Walker at the world's great jazz station
Credit Chris Tobin for WBGO News

Dear Erich is inspired by 200 newly discovered letters written in Germany between 1938 and 1941 by Herta Rosenthal to her son Erich, the composer's father.

"I decided to take out the attic a box of letters that had been sitting in my attic for more than 10 years," Rosenthal says.

This was a box of letters that my grandmother wrote to my father. He was able to escape Nazi Germany in 1938, by virtue of a fellowship to the University of Chicago. Unfortunately, most of his family, including his mother, my grandmother, were not [able to escape], and they perished. As is typical among Holocaust survivors, he spoke almost nothing about his family, and nothing of the letters. This occasion prompted me to discuss the letters with a man named Dr. Peter Schmidt, who was also a character in the opera, a very heroic character. He translated first just a few of the letters, and then all 200-plus. This process of reading these translated letters, and getting to a know a family that I really knew nothing about — my grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, some of whom had musical talent unknown to me — inspired me to begin work on this jazz opera, Dear Erich.

The new jazz opera "Dear Erich" being performed by the New York City Opera
Credit Hilan Warshaw (Overtone Films LLC

Rosenthal says Dear Erich is relevant now.

"We're trying to capture the immigrant experience," he says. "You know, we are surrounded by immigrants, and the idea that you come to a new land and you have hope and interest in creating a new life, but you have family back home. This push and pull of looking forward and looking back is one of the central themes of the opera."

So where does jazz come into this opera? Rosenthal says when Erich, his father, is kicked out of school in Nazi Germany and comes to America, he is greeted, in the opera especially, by jazz. 

"And by all the characteristics we associate with American Jazz — the freedom, the democracy, the swing, the improvisation — and this is representative of this hopeful new life he will lead in America."

For more information about Dear Erich, visit the project website.