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Ted Rosenthal: Dear Erich, A Jazz Opera

Ken Dryden By

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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.
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