Holbek, most widely known for scoring Lars von Trier’s films, is a visionary as far as 21st-century aesthetic is concerned. This was an incredibly powerful representation of the human experience, and expertly dispatched by both creator and interpreter. I can think of absolutely nothing more romantically operatic.
– The Boston Musical Intelligencer
They understand the emotional pitch and scope of the opera and successfully illuminate the difficult issues at play. In other words, this production gets it right. The set design is spot on. It’s creatively staged and lit. The acting is well calibrated; the music is beautifully performed. The Rosenbergs is small in scope but large in ambition; it is an accomplished and moving work that demands attention.
– The Arts Fuse
Composer Joachim Holbek and librettist Rhea Leman have crafted an extremely accessible telling of the story of the lives of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs is, first and foremost, a deeply moving theatrical experience.
– The Broadway World
Directed by Dmitry Troyanovsky
Musical Direction by Cristi Catt
Dramaturgy by Magda Romanska
It’s 1953 Cold War USA, and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg have been accused of atomic espionage and sentenced to death. In this most famous spy case of the 20th century, and leading into the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) Senate hearings, the Rosenbergs’ love affair broke out of all bounds.
Recognized as Denmark’s Best Opera of 2015, this tragic love story is adapted from the Rosenbergs’ letters from jail. As seen through the lens of the McCarthy witch hunts, echoes of which can still be heard today, it begs the question to all of us:
“Would you die for love?”
A North American premiere co-produced by Boston University and Brandeis University, presented by Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. Free to all students, faculty, and staff of Boston University and Brandeis University. (Please note: Advance complimentary tickets—limit of two—are available online only. Please bring your BU ID with you to the theatre, and plan to arrive no later than 15 minutes prior to curtain. Tickets are also available at the Box Office, which opens one hour before performance time.)
The Rosenbergs is generously supported by the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies at Boston University, the Jewish Cultural Endowment at Boston University, the Brandeis Arts Council, the Boston University Center for the Humanities, and through an arts grant from The BU Arts Initiative—Office of the Provost.
“During World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union fought together as allies against the Axis powers. However, the relationship between the two nations was a tense one. Americans had long been wary of Soviet communism and concerned about Russian leader Joseph Stalin’s tyrannical, blood-thirsty rule of his own country. For their part, the Soviets resented the Americans’ decades-long refusal to treat the USSR as a legitimate part of the international community as well as their delayed entry into World War II, which resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of Russians.
After the war ended, these grievances ripened into an overwhelming sense of mutual distrust and enmity. Postwar Soviet expansionism in Eastern Europe fueled many Americans’ fears of a Russian plan to control the world. Meanwhile, the USSR came to resent what they perceived as American officials’ bellicose rhetoric, arms buildup and interventionist approach to international relations. In such a hostile atmosphere, no single party was entirely to blame for the Cold War; in fact, some historians believe it was inevitable.
By the time World War II ended, most American officials agreed that the best defense against the Soviet threat was a strategy called “containment.” In 1946, in his famous “Long Telegram,” the diplomat George Kennan (1904-2005) explained this policy: The Soviet Union, he wrote, was “a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with the U.S. there can be no permanent modus vivendi [agreement between parties that disagree]”; as a result, America’s only choice was the “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” President Harry Truman (1884-1972) agreed. “It must be the policy of the United States,” he declared before Congress in 1947, “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation…by outside pressures.” This way of thinking would shape American foreign policy for the next four decades.”
The term “cold war” first appeared in a 1945 essay by the English writer George Orwell called “You and the Atomic Bomb.”
“The containment strategy also provided the rationale for an unprecedented arms buildup in the United States. In 1950, a National Security Council Report known as NSC–68 had echoed Truman’s recommendation that the country use military force to “contain” communist expansionism anywhere it seemed to be occurring. To that end, the report called for a four-fold increase in defense spending.
In particular, American officials encouraged the development of atomic weapons like the ones that had ended World War II. Thus began a deadly “arms race.” In 1949, the Soviets tested an atom bomb of their own. In response, President Truman announced that the United States would build an even more destructive atomic weapon: the hydrogen bomb, or “superbomb.” Stalin followed suit.
As a result, the stakes of the Cold War were perilously high. The first H-bomb test, in the Eniwetok atoll in the Marshall Islands, showed just how fearsome the nuclear age could be. It created a 25-square-mile fireball that vaporized an island, blew a huge hole in the ocean floor and had the power to destroy half of Manhattan. Subsequent American and Soviet tests spewed poisonous radioactive waste into the atmosphere.
The ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation had a great impact on American domestic life as well. People built bomb shelters in their backyards. They practiced attack drills in schools and other public places. The 1950s and 1960s saw an epidemic of popular films that horrified moviegoers with depictions of nuclear devastation and mutant creatures. In these and other ways, the Cold War was a constant presence in Americans’ everyday lives.”
“Espionage was one of General Groves’ main concerns during the Manhattan Project. For all of the attention paid to secrecy and counter-intelligence, spies were still able to penetrate the project and steal information about the atomic bomb. The Manhattan Project was infiltrated not by its enemies Germany and Japan, but by the Soviet Union. Soviet spies occupied positions of trust and importance in the Manhattan Project, and passed on valuable information about the bomb and its design.
Soviet espionage during the Manhattan Project was discovered through the United States Army Signal Intelligence Service’s (SIS) Venona Project, which took place between 1943 and 1980. Code-breakers at SIS headquarters at Arlington Hall were responsible for decoding Soviet trade messages that were encrypted using an unbreakable “one-time pad” system. For three years, cryptanalysts struggled to decipher Soviet trade traffic. The breakthrough came in 1946, when it was discovered that some of one-time pad keys had been reused by the Soviets, which allowed decryption (sometimes only partial) of a small part of the traffic.
On December 20, 1946, cryptologist Meredith Gardner first broke into the Soviet code. As portions of the transcripts were decoded over the coming years, American officials were shocked by what they discovered. The Soviets had penetrated almost every branch of the United States government and had spies in important positions within the State Department, the Department of the Treasury, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and even the White House — and had also spied on the Manhattan Project.
Over the next decade, the United States Army and the Federal Bureau of Investigation worked closely to try and determine the identities of Soviet spies referred to in decrypted cables by cryptonyms, or secret codenames. By 1950, officials had identified Harry Dexter White, a high-ranking Treasury Department official; former White House economic adviser Lauchlin Currie; and OSS division head Maurice Halperin. The decrypts also revealed a number of Soviet spies at Los Alamos.”
“Meanwhile, beginning in 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) brought the Cold War home in another way. The committee began a series of hearings designed to show that communist subversion in the United States was alive and well.
In Hollywood, HUAC forced hundreds of people who worked in the movie industry to renounce left-wing political beliefs and testify against one another. More than 500 people lost their jobs. Many of these “blacklisted” writers, directors, actors and others were unable to work again for more than a decade. HUAC also accused State Department workers of engaging in subversive activities. Soon, other anticommunist politicians, most notably Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957), expanded this probe to include anyone who worked in the federal government. Thousands of federal employees were investigated, fired and even prosecuted. As this anticommunist hysteria spread throughout the 1950s, liberal college professors lost their jobs, people were asked to testify against colleagues and “loyalty oaths” became commonplace.”
“Ethel Greenglass was born on September 28, 1915, in New York. She was an aspiring actress and singer, but eventually took a secretarial job at a shipping company. She became involved in labor disputes and joined the Young Communist League, where she first met Julius.
Julius Rosenberg was born on May 12, 1918, in New York. He graduated from the City College of New York with a degree in electrical engineering in 1939 and in 1940 joined the Army Signal Corps where he worked on radar equipment. He became a leader in the Young Communist League, where he met Ethel in 1936, before marrying her three years later.
In 1942, Julius and Ethel became full members in the American Communist Party. By 1943, however, the Rosenbergs dropped out of the Communist Party to pursue Julius’s espionage activities. Early in 1945, Julius was fired from his job with the Signal Corps when his past membership in the Communist Party came to light. On June 17, 1950, Julius Rosenberg was arrested on suspicion of espionage after having been named by Sgt. David Greenglass, Ethel’s younger brother and a former machinist at Los Alamos, who also confessed to passing secret information to the USSR through a courier, Harry Gold. On August 11, 1950, Ethel was arrested.” 
“Julius was arrested in July 1950, and Ethel in August of that same year, on the charge of conspiracy to commit espionage. Specifically, they were accused of heading a spy ring that passed top-secret information concerning the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.
The trial against the Rosenbergs began on March 6, 1951. From the beginning, the trial attracted a high amount of media attention and generated a largely polarized response from observers, some of whom believed the Rosenbergs to be clearly guilty, and others who asserted their innocence.
The prosecution’s primary witness, David Greenglass, Ether’s brother, stated that Ethel, working as a “probationer,” had typed notes containing U.S. nuclear secrets, and these were later turned over to Harry Gold, who would then turn them over to Anatoly A. Yakovlev, the Soviet vice consul in New York City. Both Rosenbergs asserted their right under the Fifth Amendment not to incriminate themselves whenever asked about their involvement in the Communist Party of with its members.” 
“The pair was taken to Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York, to await execution. During the next two years, the couple became the subject of both national and international debate. Many people believed that the Rosenbergs were the victims of a surge of hysterical anticommunist feeling in the United States, and protested that the death sentence handed down was cruel and unusual punishment. Most Americans, however, believed that the Rosenbergs had been dealt with justly.
“I can only say that, by immeasurably increasing the chances of atomic war, the Rosenbergs may have condemned to death tens of millions of innocent people all over the world. The execution of two human beings is a grave matter. But even graver is the thought of the millions of dead whose deaths may be directly attributable to what these spies have done.” – President Dwight D. Eisenhower
The Rosenbergs were convicted on March 29, 1951, and sentenced to death under Section 2 of the Espionage Act. The couple were the only two American civilians to be executed for espionage-related activity during the Cold War. Judge Kaufman noted that he held them responsible not only for espionage but also for the deaths of the Korean War, since the information leaked to the Russians was believed to help them develop the A-bomb and stimulate Communist aggression in Korea. Their case has been at the center of the controversy over communism in the United States ever since.
The Rosenbergs remain the only married couple executed for a federal crime in the United States, and the only civilians put to death for conspiracy to commit espionage. No American civilian has ever been killed for espionage or treason, let alone conspiracy to commit these crimes. Even during World War II, soldiers who deserted and fought with the Nazis, and individuals convicted of treason . . . only received sentences of life in prison, or less. . . . Ethel Rosenberg remains only the second female killed for a capital offense in the United States, following Mary Surratt, a conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. – Lori Clune, Executing the Rosenbergs: Death and Diplomacy in a Cold War World, 2016
President Eisenhower’s response to Clyde Miller, denying the clemency for Rosenbergs, June 10, 1953.
Julius Rosenberg was the first to be executed, at about 8 p.m. on June 19, 1953. Just a few minutes after his body was removed from the chamber containing the electric chair, Ethel Rosenberg was led in and strapped to the chair. She was pronounced dead at 8:16 p.m. Both refused to admit any wrongdoing and proclaimed their innocence right up to the time of their deaths.” 
“David Greenglass (1922-2014) was a machinist and member of the Special Engineer Detachment who engaged in espionage activities for the Soviet Union at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project.
Greenglass, the younger brother of Ethel Rosenberg, was born in New York, New York on March 2, 1922 to a family of Jewish immigrants. He graduated from Haaren High School in 1940 and later attended Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, although did not complete his studies there.
In 1942 Greenglass married Ruth Printz. Prior to entering the US Army in April 1943, he and his wife joined the Young Communist League.
Greenglass was assigned to work on the Manhattan Project in July 1944 as a member of the Special Engineer Detachment. Initially stationed at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, he was transferred to Los Alamos in August 1944 where he worked until February 1946. An Army sergeant and skilled machinist, Greenglass was on a team tasked with making molds for the high-explosive lenses used to detonate the plutonium core in the implosion bomb.
In November 1944, Greenglass and his wife were recruited by his brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg, to spy for the Soviet Union. Decrypted cables from the United States Army Signal Intelligence Service (SIS)’s “Venona” project indicate Greenglass and his wife were given the codenames KALIBR (Caliber), and OSA (Wasp), respectively. In the middle of 1945, Greenglass sent Rosenberg a crude sketch and twelve pages of detailed notes on the implosion-type bomb.
Greenglass was honorably discharged from the Army in February 1946 and returned to New York where he, along with Rosenberg, ran a machine shop known as G & R Engineering.
Following the arrest of Klaus Fuchs and Harry Gold in 1950, Greenglass and Rosenberg’s espionage activities became known to the FBI. In June 1950, Greenglass was arrested. In February 1951, he testified against his sister by stating that Ethel had typed the information that Julius later passed on to the Soviet Union. In so doing, Greenglass secured immunity for his wife Ruth, which allowed her to remain with his children while he served his prison sentence.
His testimony ultimately proved decisive in the conviction of the Rosenbergs, who were executed in the electric chair on June 19, 1953.
In March 1953, Greenglass wrote a letter to President Eisenhower asking him to commute his sister and brother-in-law’s sentences to prison terms. His request was not approved. He was released from prison in 1960.
Greenglass later stated that he intentionally implicated his sister to protect his wife and for the sake of his children. He said he did not recall who typed the notes, believing it could have been his wife. Greenglass died at the age of 92 on July 1, 2014 at a nursing home in New York.
Testimony released in July 2015 indicates that Greenglass did not specifically mention Ethel’s involvement in the delivery of atomic secrets to the USSR. His testimony, and the Rosenberg trial, remain controversial to this day.” 
“Six decades later, the execution of the Rosenbergs remains a controversial subject. Recently declassified documents have reignited debate over Ethel’s alleged role in the Soviet spy ring. It was the testimony of David Greenglass in the 1951 trial which implicated Ethel, but before a secret grand jury in 1950, Greenglass affirmed, “I said before, and say it again, honestly, this is a fact: I never spoke to my sister about this at all.” This testimony was not made available to the defense lawyers at the Rosenbergs’ trial.
Furthermore, a Venona Project intercept from 1944 mentioned the recruitment of Ruth Greenglass, the wife of David Greenglass, but made no mention of Ethel Rosenberg. In later interviews, David Greenglass stated, “I frankly think my wife did the typing, but I don’t remember” and “My wife is more important to me than my sister.” Ruth was never charged.”
“The Rosenbergs left behind two sons, Michael and Robert. During the trial and the various appeals of their parents the boys had no home of their own. When Ethel Rosenberg was arrested the children were sent to live with Tessie Greenglass, Ethel’s mother. Tessie Greenglass was unable to take care of the boys, and after staying with her for three months they were moved to the Hebrew Children’s Home. Sophie Rosenberg, Julius’ mother removed Michael and Robert from the shelter after they had been there for several months. She decided to take care of the boys herself. During this time Michael and Robert were allowed to visit their parents in Sing Sing prison. After about one year with their paternal grandmother the boys were forced to relocate once again, this time moving in with the Bach family, friends of the Rosenbergs, who lived in New Jersey.
On June 14, 1953 Michael and Robert traveled to Washington, D.C. to appeal for their parents lives to be spared.
The boys visited Sing Sing prison in Ossining, N.Y., on Thursday, June 18, 1953, their parents’ 14th wedding anniversary. Michael interrupted the death-house decorum by wailing: “One more day to live.” The following day, their parents wrote: “Always remember that we were innocent and could not wrong our conscience.”
The Rosenbergs’ will named their attorney, Manny Bloch, as guardian of the boys. Bloch placed the Rosenberg’s children with Abel and Anne Meeropol, and in 1957 the couple legally adopted the boys. (Abel Meeropol, incidentally, wrote the music and lyrics for “Strange Fruit,” a haunting song about lynching. The song became a Billie Holliday trademark. Time Magazine recently picked “Strange Fruit” as “the song of the century.”) With a new family and a new last name the boys were able to try to live a normal life. They kept the identity of their parents a secret from all but their closest friends.”
“For over 40 years Robert has been a progressive activist, author and public speaker. In the 1970’s he and his brother, Michael, successfully sued the FBI and CIA to force the release of 300,000 previously secret documents about their parents.”
“During the 1970’s the Meeropol’s became more open about their biological parent’s identity. Using the Freedom of Information Act they were able to obtain previously undisclosed documents related to their parent’s case, documents that they felt showed their parents innocence. In 1975, they authored We Are Your Sons, a book detailing their experience as sons of the Rosenbergs, as well as proclaiming the innocence of their parents. Michael Meeropol edited The Rosenberg Letters in 1994.”
In 2008, after Morty Sobell, Julius Rosenberg’s City College classmate and co-defendant, admitted that he spied for the Soviets, Michael and Robert Meeropol finally came to terms with their father’s guilt. When asked whether he felt betrayed by their parents, Robert responded:
What Julius was asked to do was send his best friends to jail, and he could not do that. My parents would have to have made a bigger betrayal to avoid betraying me, and frankly I don’t consider myself that important.
Both Michael and Robert maintain Ethel’s innocence and have created an online petition to exonerate her. In 2016, they also appealed to President Obama to exonerate their mother.