'Morning Star' creation a drama on and off stage

The story behind the creation of "Morning Star" - the Ricky Ian Gordon opera based on the devastating 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire - is as fascinating and convoluted as the opera's plot itself.

And the fact that the work's premiere by Cincinnati Opera is taking place here speaks volumes about the state of collaborative artistic efforts in the Queen City. "Morning Star" will have seven performances, stretching from June 30-July 19 in the Corbett Theater of the School for Creative & Performing Arts, just a block from Music Hall.

For Gordon, who celebrated his 59th birthday in May, "Morning Star" is the latest in a string of works that have made him one of the most successful, sought-after opera composers since the premiere of his "Grapes of Wrath" in 2007. He had already won fame as a prolific vocal composer able to embrace genres from art song to jazz to cabaret to Broadway and more.

"I am primarily a vocal composer. I'm inspired by the voice. I'm inspired by a story teller," Gordon said in a recent phone interview from New York. "I feel like I'm getting the opportunity to do what I wanted to do all along in opera."

The struggle to create "Morning Star" is a saga going back two decades or more. And the twists and turns that finally brought it to Cincinnati demonstrate one of Gordon's beliefs: "Things don't happen in our time. They happen in God's time."

The process began in the 1990s, when Gordon was struggling over a concept for a musical work based on his own family. When Chicago's Lyric Opera and Goodman Theatre came calling, he proposed that idea.

Then a friend told Gordon about a production of Sylvia Regan's 1940 play "Morning Star," a story about immigrant families against the backdrop of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 146 garment workers in Manhattan. The deadly blaze helped spur the union movement, and led to reforms in safety standards and working conditions.

"It is one of those moments historically, a tragedy that had to happen so that so many people afterward could benefit," Gordon said.

The uncanny part: The main family portrayed in Regan's play closely mirrored Gordon's own Jewish immigrant family. Gordon's grandmother actually worked at the Triangle factory, but was out sick on the day of the devastating fire.

"It is really weird. It's one of those works where it came out of nowhere. I didn't know the play at all. It just dropped into my lap, thank God. I love this play and this story."

But creating an opera based on "Morning Star" proved an artistic struggle, and the collapse of the collaboration between the Lyric and the Goodman left Gordon and his librettist, William F. Hoffman, at sea.

He and his collaborators were supposed to meet in New York to work on the piece on Sept. 11, 2001. The meeting never took place, of course, and that was "the beginning of the end of that version of 'Morning Star,'" Gordon said.

"It has taken since then to absorb what that event meant," he said. "Back then, we ended Act I with the fire. It is interesting how time informs your work. It's unpredictable. Everything happens when it had to happen."

One factor that helped resurrect "Morning Star" was the introduction of Ron Daniels, who directs the Cincinnati production. "I didn't know him, I had never worked with him. He ended up being fantastic, just what we needed. We needed to throw a bomb at this piece."

"A second look often means destruction, complete rethinking. He's not afraid to say, 'I don't think that works here.' I really trusted him. He loves this piece and wants it to succeed."

The second factor behind "Morning Star's" rise is the Opera Fusion: New Works collaboration between Cincinnati Opera and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, which provides a live laboratory for composers and librettists. The work was chosen for an Opera Fusion workshop in 2012, then brought back a second time the next year to further hone the work.

"That program is fantastic. I can't say enough about them," Gordon said. "Most opera companies don't know how to workshop an opera. That comes more from the world of theatre. But this was a great process."

Gordon said he's happy with the result, which is an example of how unpredictable and mysterious the creative process can be.

"It's like you enter the story and as the piece is growing inside you, it's like a shadow. You don't know what the notes are, it's just this thing growing inside you. Then one day, the notes come."

The result runs for seven performances in Cincinnati Opera's first world premiere production in more than a half-century. Doing so many presentations in a smaller venue, SCPA's Corbett Theater, is an extraordinary commitment for both institutions - particularly Cincinnati Opera, which has branched out in recent years beyond its big-stage productions of operatic classics in Music Hall.

"I'm really proud of them for doing this," Gordon said. "It is a wonderful and risky thing."

The new work should fit well into Gordon's growing canon of operas centered on American life.

His style can evoke many sounds - the open prairie, ragtime, jazz, urban sophistication, folk music - whatever fits the particular story.

"Every story has a different set of demands. Every piece sounds different,' Gordon said. "You are absorbing a different set of influences. In 'Morning Star,' there's Tin Pan Alley and a sense of America's ethnic melting pot."

"I think Ricky writes in that idiom that evokes American memory," says Patrick Summers, Houston Grand Opera artistic and music director.

In "Morning Star," it's not just about the garment factory fire - it's a broader look at the human condition, Gordon said.

"It is a story about what it means to be alive while the umbrella of death hovers over us. That's the way life is. That's what makes the play wonderful. There are people looking for love, being spurned, kibitzing and attacking each other, getting pregnant when they shouldn't...We're fools. Shakespeare got it right."
- Ray Cooklis, Express Cincinnati, June 2015