Wolfe ‘Fire’ Is Epic Political Oratorio On Tragic History



Julia Wolfe’s ‘Fire in my mouth’ contains a quote by Clara Lemlich, a reformist activist advocating for better working conditions in turn-of-the-20th-century garment factories. (Photos by Chris Lee)
By Xenia Hanusiak

NEW YORK —  When American composer Julia Wolfe was commissioned to write her oratorio Fire in my mouth, based on a devastating industrial accident in New York City, no one could have predicted that during the month of its world premiere by the New York Philharmonic, the United States would be confronting its gaze in a mirror reflecting a new wave of arresting crises of immigration, worker’s rights, assimilation, and women’s voices.

The piece, performed Jan. 24-26 at David Geffen Hall, proved chillingly prescient. Fire in my mouth is a defining statement of the United States in the 21st century.

As a musical documentarian, Wolfe awakens her audiences to the history of her country and its people. The new dramatic oratorio continues Wolfe’s dedication to women’s issues and America’s labor records, chronicled in her earlier works, Pulitzer Prize-winning Anthracite Fields and the chamber work Steel Hammer.

Julia Wolfe during bows after the world premiere

The 60-minute multi-media oratorio — scored for symphony orchestra, amplified women’s choir, and a girl’s chorus — is an epic, four-movement piece that narrates the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. In March 1911, 146 workers — mainly immigrant workers from Jewish and Italian heritage — died there as the result of a catastrophic fire in a space that was ill equipped with safety measures.

The title, Fire in my mouth, is extracted from an interview given years later by Clara Lemlich, one of the reformist activists advocating for better working conditions. The text of the work is built from oral histories, interviews, protest songs, and regional folk songs. Wolfe allows the raw materials in Fire in my mouth to speak via word-setting techniques of minimalism, repetition, and complex textual super-impositions. Her messaging is overwhelmingly depicted with a vigorous pen and dramatic large-scale staging. Both choices seek to create an experience that is alarmist and confrontational. Her canvas is propelling and charged. There is little elegiac writing, or comfort.

Women are the narrative heart of this musical adaptation. For this world premiere, Wolfe was gifted with the extraordinary contributions from the female members of the professional chamber choir The Crossing and the exemplary young women in the multicultural Young People’s Chorus of New York City. This aggregation of young women dominated with voice and presence. Director Anne Kauffman choreographed their physical movements across the breadth of the hall — behind, in front of, and at the sides of the orchestra, sometimes in protesting procession in the auditorium, and at other times standing in stillness, performing mimetic movements. The collective innocence and passions of their performance imparted a palpable presence. At times, I forgot that the orchestra existed.

A historical photo from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory is projected during Wolfe’s oratorio.

Wolfe’s resourcing and writing for the orchestra is moderately conservative. She adds an electric guitar and electric bass, but there is very little in the score to cause alarm for a modern orchestra. Largely ancillary, the orchestra is asked to paint the physical landscapes. The composer writes an array of onomatopoeic subjects for her large orchestra — asking the brass to create non-pitched air sounds, woodwinds to evoke whistles — and strings to create fire crackles by slapping the strings. The Philharmonic under music director Jaap van Zweden demonstrated unfailing commitment to the drama.

Fire in my mouth is a chronological documentary that expresses its view of multiculturalism, determinism, and assimilation through a dialogue with the video and projections designed by Jeff Sugg. The prefacing first movement, “Immigration,” portrays the European migratory experience with a dance-like timeline in three-quarter time. Ocean waves are voiced through woodwind triplet figures crossed against subtle duplets from the strings. In the second movement, the animations of the factory floor are cleverly juxtaposed with a double choir singing a Yiddish folk song and an Italian folk song simultaneously.

The third movement, “Protest,” forms the climactic center of the work. Here, Wolfe’s minimalist treatment of a series of affirmations based on mantra like-sentences — such as “I want to talk like an American” and “I want to cry like an American” — form the nucleus of the women’s choral writing. Wolfe creates hypnotic wailing sounds. The poignancy of this movement is heightened by the procession protest of the girls’ choir through the auditorium. There is a feeling of broken lives and dreams and aspirations cut short.

The 146 workers who died in the fire are memorialized in Wolfe’s oratorio.

The resolving fourth movement, “Fire,” offers an evocation of the dramatic and devastating incident. Wolfe’s music responds with a gentler canvas, and it is here that I searched for a soothing chorale or lullaby. Fire in my mouth does not offer a panacea, nor a moment of reprieve. Perhaps this was its intent. Wolfe’s dramatic oratorio resists. Fire in my mouth is a feisty protest that overwhelms with its assertion. It is an uncompromising achievement.

Fire in my mouth is part of the Philharmonic festival “New York Stories: Threads of our City,” a two-week immersion focusing on immigration. The program opened with Elegy from Steven Stucky’s oratorio August 4 1964. Van Zweden evoked a Mahleresque beauty and understanding of the interlude’s open string voicings, soothing oboe and cor anglais lines, and the hammer sounds from the bass drum and timpani.

Principal clarinetist Anthony McGill’s lithe interpretation of Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra, with Harp and Piano, premiered by Benny Goodman in 1950, began with a clarion, vibrato-free response. While the two-movement work provided a joyous interlude via McGill’s virtuosity, ringing with verve and fluidity, the concerto was robbed of its fullest potential with a very square, highly reined-in reading of the intoxicatingly swinging jazz of the second movement.

The night belonged to Julia Wolfe, The Crossing, and the Young Peoples’ Chorus of New York City.

Xenia Hanusiak is a New York-based writer, festival director, and scholar whose writing has appeared in London’s Financial Times, Music and Literature, National Sawdust’s Log Journal, and the New York Times. She is an advocate for contemporary music and cultural diplomacy. www.xeniahanusiak.com