Close-Up Setting Focuses Opera’s Historic Tragedy

Ricky Ian Gordon’s ‘Morning Star,” about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in which 146 died, was performed by On Site Opera in a 19th-century synagogue on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. (Production photos: Pavel Antonov)

NEW YORK ‒ By now, composer Ricky Ian Gordon has built up such a body of stage works that if you didn’t know his playing field when walking into the March 21 opening of Morning Star, you should have.

Aaron (Joshua Jeremiah), Becky (Emily Pulley), Fanny (Jennifer Zetlan).

Based on the Sylvia Regan play about the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York, Morning Star is about Latvian Jews finding new lives in New York amid any number of crises ‒ including the Triangle factory fire that killed 146 mostly immigrant workers. Many real-life people at that time no doubt prayed and mourned at the opera’s venue, the lovely wood-paneled 1887 synagogue known as the Museum at Eldridge Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Such is the hallmark of On Site Opera, a small New York company that utilizes historically appropriate performances spaces.

The opera was heard for the first time in a chamber orchestra reduction with the three-hour running time of its 2015 Cincinnati premiere trimmed by about a half hour ‒ though without the input of librettist William Hoffman, who died last year and to whom the production was dedicated. Whether this chamber opera achieves the epic scope that it seems to desire wasn’t clear amid the On Site circumstances: the venue is a synagogue, not a theater, and without the theatrical apparatus that can convey time shifts in a story that spans the period from 1911 to the early 1930s. What is clear is that this is a major Gordon score dramatizing an array of characters who indeed insinuate themselves into your consciousness.

Esther (Cree Carrico) and Harry (Andrew Lovato) at a wedding.

Though the Triangle tragedy was a flashpoint for laws against sweatshop working conditions, Morning Star focuses most on the intimate drama about how people find and lose their values in a new world, centering on a widowed mother and her three daughters with myriad ambitions. One of them was forced to work on her wedding day and was among the 146 who perished. Act II concerns untreated post-traumatic stress disorder among the surviving family and friends as lives and relationships unravel in ways the characters can’t really explain or understand.

The music is fundamentally lyrical, though formal melodies arrive only when they are most needed. Smooth orchestral surfaces allowed you to stand back from the domestic squabbles, thanks to a certain kind of harmonic neutrality that creates a place for audiences to have their own reactions to the events at hand. Best of all, this neutrality ‒ not to be confused with vagueness ‒ doesn’t lock the singers in a particular mode of interpretation. No wonder some of the characterizations seemed so personal. The first act also came with a Latvian accent. Though I’m no expert on that ethnicity, I’ve heard enough of popular Latvian music from the mid-20th century to enjoy the modal sweetness that Gordon employed.

Fanny (Jennifer Zetlan) at the funeral for her sister Esther.

Much of Act I made me recall “The Promise of Living” from Aaron Copland’s opera The Tender Land, in which simple, even naive melodic material builds with plainspoken sentiments into a grand operatic statement. Gordon is a stage animal in ways that Copland was not, which is why the individual elements of his ensembles maintain the strong personalities of his characters. In fact, such ensemble passages showed the opera at its best ‒ which is apt since the piece is about community. As with Kurt Weill’s Street Scene, Morning Star isn’t afraid to break into spoken dialogue.

Act II continued the long-term arc of Act I, though as the climax approached, the music fearlessly hurled itself into the dramatic thickets as decisively as Italian verismo. The ending, however, was questionable; characters achieved an extremely satisfying conclusion, dramatically and musically, as they learn to live with disappointment and disillusionment. Both vocal lines and instrumental writing with beautifully ascending and descending woodwind figures went to the hearts of the characters. However, a Kaddish sung in the memory of the 1911 fire victims brought back the tragedy itself with a force not experienced when the fire was presented chronologically at the end of Act I. Compelling as it was, the episode felt like a second ending.

The performance circumstances allowed an immersive operatic experience in which the singers moved along the aisles of the seating area, only inches away from listeners. And that felt right considering the libretto’s emphasis on characters over events – underscored by director Eric Einhorn: Mostly, this is an opera about people who didn’t make history, but were victims of it. The cast acted with remarkable freedom despite the fact that the main performing area was the front of the synagogue, separated by a fair distance from the chamber ensemble of 16 players in the rear of the room. Yet the cohesion achieved by conductor Geoffrey McDonald seemed effortless.

Blake Friedman, playing a songwriter, delivered offhanded comedy.

This was one cast where faces were as important as voices, and pretty much everybody delivered on both counts, even when they didn’t look the parts they were playing. As the family matriarch, Emily Pulley was a captivating, charismatic presence, though her penetrating voice wasn’t best heard at close proximity. As the daughters, Jennifer Zetlan, Blythe Gaissert, and especially Cree Carrico sang extremely effectively while filling out the sociological panorama of the opera’s time.

Among the men, Joshua Jeremiah and Andrew Lovato were far too handsome for their everyday characters but, with winning vocalism and confident handling of the words, they were perfectly convincing. Lest we think the world of this opera was entirely dour, tenor Blake Friedman delivered offhanded comedy as a ne’er do well songwriter. But would somebody find these capable performers a more traditional theater?