Chicago-born opera 'Morning Star' shines powerfully
An opera project conceived some 15 years ago as a collaboration by Lyric Opera and the Goodman Theatre, only to be shelved when something went awry between the Chicago theaters, has finally found a home.
The world premiere of composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist William M. Hoffman's "Morning Star," in its reworked final form, took place Tuesday night as a joint venture of the Cincinnati Opera, which presented it, and the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music. Opera Fusion: New Works, their program for workshopping contemporary American operas, served as catalyst for the project.
Was the long pull "Morning Star" had to undergo before finally emerging into the blinding light of performance worth it? Most emphatically, yes.
A worthy performance by a splendid ensemble of mostly young American singers rescued from oblivion a music theater piece of considerable heart, power and poignancy. The opening-night audience at Cincinnati's School for Creative and Performing Arts received the work with the kind of open enthusiasm not usually awarded contemporary operas.
Based on Sylvia Regan's 1940 Broadway play of the same name, "Morning Star" is a slice-of-urban-life drama about a family of Latvian-Jewish immigrants living on New York's Lower East Side during the years 1910 to 1931. The central characters are Becky Felderman, a widowed mother, and her three daughters, Esther, Sadie and Fanny. The daughters' destinies, and indeed the opera itself, are shaped by an actual historical event: the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in which 146 garment workers, most of them young Jewish and Italian immigrants, died after having been locked in the upper floors of a New York City sweatshop.
When Richard Pearlman, the late former director of Lyric's Ryan Opera Center, suggested "Morning Star" to Gordon as the subject of a potentially viable opera, he was immediately struck by the many parallels with his own family history. For one thing, his maternal grandmother had worked at the Triangle factory and would have perished had she not been out sick the day of the fire. Gordon had no trouble persuading his friend Bill Hoffman – a fellow New York native of similar Jewish lineage – to sign on to the project.
After several well-received workshop performances in Chicago (the last was in June 2002), Lyric and Goodman officials had a falling-out and the project was canceled. Other opera companies staged readings of "Morning Star" but nothing came of them either.
The work lay dormant until 2011, when Robin Guarino, a friend of Gordon's and a co-artistic director of Opera Fusion, offered him a residency for a new opera. Gordon seized on the residency as an opportunity to revisit "Morning Star." The advice of stage director Ron Daniels was crucial, says Gordon, in helping him and Hoffman reshape and strengthen parts of the work. Several workshops later, Cincinnati Opera scheduled the show for its current season.
The success of Tuesday's premiere validated everyone's faith in "Morning Star." The two-act, three-hour (including intermission) opera, which follows the resilient Becky's struggle to keep her family together amid horrific, lifechanging events, impressed as Gordon's finest opera to date, even if parts of the second act could have been tightened.
The score's seamless fusion of melodic arioso, accompanied recitative, Broadway-style ballads, stirring ensembles, and Tin Pan Alley and ragtime elements, turns on a dime as the dramatic and emotional situations require. Several memorable songs crystallize the psychology of the main characters, notably Fanny's proto-feminist ballad, "If I'm Not Allowed to Sing"; and Pearl's "So Many Colors," in which the young woman, an African-American from the rural South, laments the loss of her home and family.
The music sits comfortably on Hoffman's sharply observed libretto, slyly peppered with Yiddishisms, Sondheimesque in its witty use of language, yet entirely Hoffman's own in its ability to evoke the rhythms of working-class life and death.
Composer and librettist get inside the heads of their characters with a deftness of touch that makes us feel the pain of their shattered dreams. Past and present are jumbled, with ghosts mingling with the living. We realize how everyone, not just hardscrabble immigrants in old New York, can be trapped by the choices they make in life.
From the striking opening tableau of working-class New Yorkers gathered in the pouring rain in front of projections of actual newspaper headlines of the 1911 tragedy ("The skies wept," sings the ensemble), to the final scene evoking the devastating fire itself, nothing strikes a false note.
Conductor Christopher Allen's firm, alert pacing of the orchestra (made up of Cincinnati Symphony members) is at one with the handsome production design (Riccardo Hernandez created the sets, Emily Rebholz the costumes, Thomas C. Hase the lighting and Wendall K. Harrington the projections), Daniels' surefooted staging and the finely detailed performances of the singers.
Twyla Robinson as the indomitable but devoted matriarch Becky Felderman, Elizabeth Zharoff as the romantic youngest sister Esther, Elizabeth Pojanowski as the hard-bitten sister Sadie, Jennifer Zetlan as the long-suffering Fanny and Jeanine De Bique as the nostalgic Pearl were all admirable in their parts. Andrew Lovato (as Harry Engel), Andrew Bidlack (Irving Tashman), Morgan Smith (Aaron Greenspan) and Larry D. Hylton (Price) did creditable work in the male roles.
I wouldn't be surprised to see "Morning Star" making the rounds of some of the smaller U.S. opera companies. Perhaps it will even make its way back to Chicago.
- John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune, 2 July 2015