'Morning Star' Opera Sheds New Light On Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Of 1911

Mar 26, 2018
Originally published on March 25, 2018 7:03 pm

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 was an industrial disaster that killed 146 garment workers in New York City. The fire became a touchstone for the labor movement of the 20th century. An opera inspired by the disaster tells the story from a different point of view and it's getting a special type of New York debut.

The Triangle Waist Company employed hundreds of people, mostly immigrants and women, in a sweatshop on the top three floors of New York's 10-story Asch Building. On March 25, 1911, when a fire broke out, it spread quickly. Due to the building's poor safety conditions — a rusted fire escape, broken elevators, locked doors — many burned or fell to their death. The building still stands today. Rose Imperato, Vice President of Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, says, at the time, it was considered a modern building.

"The building is fireproof. The people aren't fireproof," Imperato says.

Ricky Ian Gordon's opera Morning Star follows one Jewish immigrant family living in Manhattan's Lower East Side during the time of the infamous fire.

"My mother's mother, Rebecca Lieberman, worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory," the composer says. "On the day of the fire, she was home sick. And when her mother heard what was happening, she dragged my grandmother there."

When Eric Einhorn, founder of On Site Opera, heard that Morning Star had premiered at Cincinnati Opera in 2015, he knew he wanted to bring it to New York.

Though the fire is a pivotal moment in the opera, it's only part of the story. So, instead of staging the opera at the Asch Building (which has since been renamed the Brown Building), Einhorn decided to stage the production at the Eldridge Street Synagogue because each act of the opera is framed by the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. Einhorn says this setting gives the audience a feeling of attending a memorial service for those that died.

"Out of that comes the story about this family and this community impacted by this horrible tragedy within this incredibly holy and sacred space," Einhorn says.

Morning Star is being performed this weekend to mark the 107th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Today marks the anniversary of the deadliest industrial disaster in New York City history. In 1911, 146 garment workers - most of them immigrants - lost their lives in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The fire devastates the family at the heart of Ricky Ian Gordon's opera, "Morning Star," which is set on Manhattan's Lower East Side. To mark the anniversary, the opera is being presented on the Lower East Side. Naomi Lewin has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "MORNING STAR")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) I smelled something burning. I saw the red flames.

NAOMI LEWIN, BYLINE: The Triangle Waist Company as it was called made women's shirts. It employed hundreds of people - mostly women and mostly immigrants - in a sweatshop on the top three floors of a 10-story building. On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out and spread quickly because of all the fabric and the poor working conditions. The disaster became a touchstone for the labor movement, says Rose Imperato, vice president of Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition.

ROSE IMPERATO: The fire escape was basically rusted. And when workers climbed onto it, it collapsed under their weight. So many died, falling to their death. The doors were locked in part. The factory owners didn't want the workers taking home scraps, and they didn't want union organizers coming in.

RICKY IAN GORDON: My mother's mother, Rebecca Lieberman, worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

LEWIN: Composer Ricky Ian Gordon.

GORDAN: On the day of the fire, she was home sick. And when her mother heard what was happening, she dragged my grandmother there, and they literally saw bodies - like, my grandmother's friends and people she worked with - flying out the window in flames.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "MORNING STAR")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (As character, singing) I'm going to jump, Esther.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (As character, singing) Hold my hand, (unintelligible).

LEWIN: "Morning Star" had just premiered in Cincinnati when Eric Einhorn heard about the opera.

ERIC EINHORN: About a Jewish immigrant family on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early 20th century and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. And I was thinking this has to be in New York.

LEWIN: Einhorn is the founder of On Site Opera, which stages site-specific productions around New York City. The first one was Shostakovich's "Tale Of The Baby Mouse" at the Bronx Zoo.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "TALE OF THE SILLY BABY MOUSE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As character, singing) Baby mouse, I've come to sing you - the song I bring you.

EINHORN: And from there, we went to the Cotton Club in Harlem where we did Gershwin's "Blue Monday."

LEWIN: And after that, they did Rameau's "Pygmalion" at Madame Tussauds Wax Museum.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "PYGMALION")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (As character, singing).

LEWIN: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory building still stands. The fire is a pivotal moment in the opera, but it's only part of the story, so the factory building wasn't really an appropriate venue. Instead, Einhorn turned to the Eldridge Street Synagogue because each act of the opera is framed by the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "MORNING STAR")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character, singing in Hebrew).

EINHORN: This idea of creating a kind of memory play out of the opera, where the audience walks into a funeral, and they're there are to attend this memorial service complete with coffins and mourners. And out of that comes this story about this family and this community impacted by this horrible tragedy within this incredibly holy and sacred space.

LEWIN: The composer visited the 19th-century space on Eldridge Street and knew his opera had come home.

GORDAN: You walk into this synagogue, and the first thing you see is a gigantic, round, glass window that looks like one big morning star. And it seemed like a sign. I mean, when you see the synagogue and you see this window, you just think, wow, talk about bashert.

LEWIN: Yiddish for it was meant to be. Ricky Ian Gordon's "Morning Star" is being performed to mark the 107th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. For NPR News, I'm Naomi Lewin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.