The acclaimed jazz pianist and composer Ted Rosenthal was inspired to write the opera “Dear Erich” by a box of letters that sat in his attic for 20 years, untouched. Herta, a grandmother Mr. Rosenthal never met who died in a Nazi concentration camp, wrote the letters to her son, Erich, Mr. Rosenthal’s father, who left Germany in 1938 to attend college in Chicago. Erich did not know what precisely happened to his mother after her letters ended. For years, he was loath to talk about it with his children.
In 2015, during a visit to his grandmother’s hometown, Mr. Rosenthal met a scholar who translated Herta’s more than 200 letters and fleshed out her story. This gave Mr. Rosenthal the idea for “Dear Erich,” a jazz opera, as he calls it, which was commissioned by New York City Opera and had its premiere on Wednesday at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan. Presented with the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene (which won raves for its Yiddish production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” soon moving to Stage 42 in Midtown), it’s a simple and fluid production, sensitively directed by Mikhaela Mahony.
There are some compelling elements to “Dear Erich,” which has a libretto by Mr. Rosenthal and his wife, Lesley Rosenthal. Though it dramatizes situations and invents details, the opera tells the true, wrenching story of a decent son trying to start a new life in America but anguished over his mother left behind. The two-act work deftly shifts between present-day scenes of the aging Erich; flashbacks to his college days in Chicago; and earlier scenes in Germany, in which the headstrong young man refuses to go into the family scrap metal business, determined to pursue an American education.
You care about these characters. And the cast is gifted. But the libretto (which has additional lyrics by Barry Singer, E.M. Lewis and Edward Einhorn) is proliferated with lame rhymes (“I need to go, I need to grow,” young Erich tells his parents) and often wallows in mawkishness. (“The darkness comes before the morning,” Erich’s wife tells him when he’s disconsolate).
And the music is frustratingly uneven. In an early scene, when the old, ill Erich drifts in and out of consciousness, having conversations with his dead mother, the wistfully restrained qualities of Mr. Rosenthal’s mellow jazzy score convey regret and fragility. When his grown children try to rouse him, then complain that he has shut them out emotionally, jittery rhythms suggest both their American sassiness and genuine concern. These scenes brought out the best from the 11 skilled players of the orchestra, led by the conductor Adam Glaser.
But the score keeps breaking into songs, Mr. Rosenthal’s jazz equivalents of arias, and they are often maudlin. In an interview with JazzTimes, he said that he hopes these numbers will be performed independently. In the opera, they felt inserted and heavy-handed.
The scenes that invite real break-out jazz work well: when Erich encounters American city street life; when he heads with his wife, Lili, to a Chicago club; when the jazzy spins during their wedding party segue into traditional Jewish dancing.
The impressive singers of this 15-member cast — many taking more than one role — gave their all to the piece. The baritone Peter Kendall Clark brought gravity and earthy sound to Old Erich, while the baritone Brian James Myer was the robust-voiced, conflicted Young Erich. Rachel Zatcoff was a bright, loving Lili.
Glen Seven Allen was winning as Freddy, Erich’s son, who goes to Germany to uncover his grandmother’s story. He brings back a final letter from Herta to Erich that was never sent. In an affecting scene based on that letter, Herta (the radiant soprano Jessica Tyler Wright), explains that she is being sent on a one-way trip, but tells her son that nothing befalling her is his fault — that his life is her gift to him, and his to her.
It would have been moving to end the opera with that scene. Instead, the score builds to a final chorus about the power of remembrance, complete with “ah-ah” refrains and soaring Hollywood-melodrama melodies.