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Ted Rosenthal: Dear Erich, A Jazz Opera

Ken Dryden By

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With Brookmeyer, additionally, the content of the Jazz Composer's Workshop had a lot to do with thinking about ways of expanding jazz composition, in terms of longer forms and other influences. For him specifically, some European influences were captivating him and he was imparting that to we students. —Ted Rosenthal
Ted Rosenthal is one of the most renowned pianists of his generation. He won first prize at the second Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition and has been awarded several NEA grants as a composer. Well known as the pianist in Gerry Mulligan's final quartet, Rosenthal has recorded or performed with many other artists, including Bob Brookmeyer, Phil Woods, Art Farmer, Jim Hall, Jon Faddis, Benny Golson, James Moody, Mel Lewis, Lee Konitz and Ken Peplowski. Rosenthal has recorded fifteen CDs as a leader for a variety of labels. In addition to performing and composing, Rosenthal has been very active in jazz education.

All About Jazz: Tell me about your classical and jazz studies.

Ted Rosenthal: I studied jazz privately with a variety of people: just a few lessons with Lennie Tristano, about a year of piano lessons with Jaki Byard. My first piano teacher, Tony Aless, was a very fine jazz pianist who did a lot of studio work and is on some Charlie Parker with Strings [albums]. The jazz I studied was predominately from about the age of twelve to eighteen, some of the summer workshops, Jamey Aebersold, some master classes with Billy Taylor. I was also studying classical at the same time as there were limited opportunities to study jazz, like being a jazz major in college, so I did a little of bit of cramming, you could call it, to get my classical chops up to snuff to go as a piano major. I ended up graduating with two degrees from Manhattan School of Music. I was playing gigs on the weekend, doing whatever kind of jazz gigs I could find. During the day at school, my studies had to do with classical.

AAJ: You had quite a jazz background, your tenure in the Gerry Mulligan Quartet and also work with the wonderful valve trombonist and composer/arranger Bob Brookmeyer. How did they influence you?

TR: Yes, I think especially in regards to this jazz opera project, I think that both the people you mentioned were an influence. Bob Brookmeyer was the director of the BMI Jazz Composer's Workshop, which I was a member of and I guess you could say, a student of his. I got to record a wonderful duo album with him, One Night In Vermont. I had that relationship in terms of studying and talking about jazz composition and also got to play with him, initially through him sitting in on a couple of Gerry Mulligan gigs. Of course, Mulligan was also a wonderful composer and arranger and had a very detailed approach even to the quartet, as to how things were arranged and what he wanted to hear. Did he want to hear very spare or thick, lush piano? He was always thinking like an arranger, thinking about the group sound, whatever the group was, whether it was the quartet or a larger ensemble like the tentet, where we did Rebirth Of The Cool music on one of the tours. With Brookmeyer, additionally, the content of the Jazz Composer's Workshop had a lot to do with thinking about ways of expanding jazz composition, in terms of longer forms and other influences. For him specifically, some European influences were captivating him and he was imparting that to the students. That is certainly a direct influence on the Dear Erich opera, because you could say in many ways it encapsulates my approach, which is it is a jazz piece primarily but there are any number of European influences throughout the piece, especially when the action is taking place in Germany.

AAJ: Give me some background about the letters that inspired your jazz opera Dear Erich.

TR: The letters were in the house I grew up in. When my father passed away in 1995, we packed up the house and among the very few things that I took were this box of letters. He never really discussed them, I sort of knew the gist of it, that they were primarily from his mother, who perished like most of the other family members in the Holocaust. They were all in German and I was busy pursuing my music and other things in my life and did not really focus on what the content was because I could not read them. They went from sitting in a box in an attic in the house I grew up in to sitting in a box in the attic [laughs] of where I currently live. What started to pique my interest was about three years ago, we were invited to my grandmother's hometown in Germany, a very small town. The townspeople had refurbished a very small Jewish religious school in remembrance of the lost Jewish community. The people of the town invited the descendants of the Jews who had left. Almost on a lark, I said, "Let me take this box of letters out and maybe I will show them a few and see what they think and maybe they would translate a few." Members and heads of the historical society of this town, which is called Bad Camberg, said that ithe letters were of great interest to them, because this is the history of the town and they would be happy to translate the letters. I scanned about six over to them and they translated them. The revelations from the first six were just so amazing, because I knew almost nothing of the relatives who had perished. Just getting a small glimpse into this other life that was my family was really quite profound and I told them what an amazing experience this was for me and I mentioned that there were more letters and they were happy to translate all of the letters. I don't think at first [laughs] they realized there would be two hundred plus letters, but this man, Dr. Peter Schmidt, who is not only a wonderful, real life, heroic kind of person, but he really selflessly did all this, he is actually a character in the opera as well. He's coming to the premiere, by the way.

AAJ: What led you to choose to blend the worlds of jazz and opera?

TR: I had done some classical style compositions, for example, I had written two piano concertos. I have interest in exploring longer form pieces, even in jazz composition. Of course, a lot of the time, I am playing tunes, either my own or other tunes, but this just felt like a dramatic work, it did not feel like an instrumental piece. It felt like something dramatic and specifically that the letters could be, with the proper editing and putting together the right words, could be sung. And that was the direction I chose to take it.

AAJ: How did the piece come together? Did you work on the music first, choose the text, create a lyric from a letter or a combination of all of them?

TR: It was really all of the above, I like to tell the story where people asked Richard Rodgers: "Did the music or the words come first?" It is really a combination, some of the pieces the music was written first, my wife wrote the words for a lot of those pieces. A couple of early collaborators wrote some words and I wrote the music to that. Of course, my wife Lesley worked to choose the right letters, then I would chisel down the content to make it something that could be manageable and put into music. It was really a combination of a few different processes. In many ways it is in a form something like Porgy & Bess, where you have a through composed work, meaning music beginning to end and no dialogue, but in this stream of music, there are songs, just like we know all of the famous songs from Porgy & Bess. By the way, many of the songs from my opera I play with my jazz trio. Depending upon where the music was in the piece, is it a song or what I call connective tissue, things where dialogue or action needs to happen, but it is not necessarily a song form per se. So it has been quite fascinating to work in many different settings of all the music and how it all functions and all gets put together.

AAJ: I imagine that a project of this size and depth had many challenges. What were some of the greatest ones you faced?

TR: I would say we had artistic challenges and practical challenges. The artistic challenges had mostly to do with the dramatic elements of the piece, because once you start with directors or people not in the musical realm, they have a very different set of criteria that they are looking for. Judging by the drama as being a coherent story, but also how will it look on stage. Is there enough action or is there a lull? The practical nature of getting the company being able to do it to put it on. I was fairly active in helping figure out how to make the whole thing happen so there were challenges along those lines as well.

AAJ: When you were working in rehearsals, whether with the singers or instrumentalists, you had a certain vision for the piece, along with the director. How hard was it for the cast and musicians to appreciate your vision for Dear Erich?

TR: I have to say one of the things that has kept me going in the most challenging moments of this process is how positive the various cast members of the readings and now the actual production have been, because I think they sincerely love the piece. They love the music, they find it tuneful and memorable, not crazy to sing, it is fun to sing, it fits their various voice types quite well. They truly seem to have an appreciation for the story, that is extremely heartening to pick up many if not most all of the subtleties of what is really both a family and personal story, but also a story that has many connections to what is going on in our world today, socially and politically with issues of immigration, refugees and crisis and things like that. It has been a joy to see how responsive and much the cast members relate to this piece, it has been very gratifying.

AAJ: Since it is a jazz opera, I guess you are not trying to focus on the typical opera singer's range and virtuosity, but for an audience to be able to actually understand the lyric. Is that correct?

TR: That is correct. Balancing and learning about the storytelling aspect of this, there is a place for mystery and intrigue, but there is also a need for clarity and telling a coherent story that people will understand (laughs), because I do not think that is always the case when people come to see things. So that is part of my esthetic, is to have it be understandable and to convey a certain level of clarity.

AAJ: I think that a lot times people believe that jazz fans are not opera fans and vice versa. What do you think will draw people from each genre of music to go and see Dear Erich?

TR: Well, that is a great question and I think you are right. There are people in the world who are big opera fans who probably lean toward going to opera houses putting on Italian opera. Then you have jazz fans who may have never set foot in an opera house. They are very different worlds, but I go back to Porgy & Bess and I think of the way that Gershwin brought together these worlds, where there are tuneful melodies throughout the piece, that I hope people will go out singing and then it has maybe an added feature for the jazz fans that you have an additionally compelling story to get wrapped up in, too. For the opera fans, there is a pretty active and thriving world of contemporary opera, but as in any kind of music, contemporary opera can mean so many things, from very atonal and abstract to what you could call mine, which is contemporary but has more traditional melodies. I am hoping people take the plunge, show up and buy a ticket and that they will be very pleasantly surprised if they were at all skeptical for any reason and really enjoy the piece, no matter what their initial favorite kind of music is. We have a wonderful director, Mikhaela Mahoney, I am fortunate that she is very appreciative of the jazz components of the piece and there will be moments when it makes dramatic sense, but there will be moments when the band is featured and the lights will go in that direction, something that the jazz fans can enjoy. There will be sets, costumes, lighting and props, so it is going to be a real production.

AAJ: You have done excerpts with your jazz trio and there has been at least one full reading on stage of the opera. Tell me about the audience response to each.

TR: We did two readings and the audience reaction was quite powerful in both instances. The material is serious, but people were very wrapped up in the story and very moved by the music, they felt it captured so much of jazzy Chicago and the New World, jazz being emblematic of democracy. Then there were bleaker sounds, more introspective things, representing what was happening in Germany.

AAJ: Hopefully you will find a way to record the music and vocals or perhaps make a DVD of a live performance.

TR: Everything is being considered, we will have some form of video documentation. I do not know if it is going to be something that is commercially sellable, I definitely plan on doing some sort of audio recording. There could be a few versions, instrumental, with vocals, it could be with some of my friends in the jazz world who seem to be interested in singing. I was just communicating with Tierney Sutton the other day and she wants me to show her the music. Kurt Elling sang one of the songs on the jazz cruise earlier this year. I have been so busy with the preparations right now that I will get to that after the January performances.

AAJ: Is there anything else that you would like to include?

TR: I think the story is extremely meaningful to many people, whether you have the Holocaust in your background or not. It is a story of immigrants, refugees, parents and what they do or do not tell their children, the consequences for those relationships. It is also a story that relates to our social and political times with immigration and refugees, how we choose to help or not help them. As a musical work, it is a jazz piece, but in a very extended form, touching on elements of classical music and other things. I think there's a lot of things in it for a lot of people and I encourage people to come see it.

AAJ: Dear Erich should provide fuel to fight the growing element of Holocaust denial or people who are clueless about the scope of it, even though it was well documented in photographs and films by the Allied forces when they discovered the camps.

TR: You are absolutely right. I think that is something that art has a unique function of being able to get people to think, reflect and even acknowledge, if necessary, some history and what impact it has had on many, many people. I am hoping that future performances will address those things.

AAJ: I wish you the kind of success that will enable you to put on future performances, not only in New York City, but in other major metropolitan areas.

TR: Thank you, I am truly hoping so, it looks like I am getting some interest. It looks like I will do a slightly abbreviated, maybe more of a concert version, in Copenhagen, in June. So there are already irons on the fire for future Dear Erich productions.

AAJ: I know you are proud of this project and none of us can appreciate how personal some of this is, to open a hidden chapter in your family history. Hopefully there is a sense of healing in the creation of this work.

TR: Thank you, I think that it is one family's story, but in some ways, it is many, many people's family's story, in different ways. I hope people will be touched by it and I am very proud to have gone through this.
Dear Erich has fifteen characters and eleven instrumentalists, which include Rosenthal on piano, drummer Tim Horner, trumpeter Tony Kadleck, bassist Thomson Kneeland, multi-reed players Andrew Sterman and Mark Lopeman, along with a trombonist and string quartet.

The world premiere of Ted Rosenthal's jazz opera Dear Erich is scheduled for January 9, 10, 12 and 13 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. More information can be found at dearerich.com.
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