Morning Star is a plaintive tale, a historic record of the wave of immigration to the US and particularly New York City in the early years of the 20th century. It focuses on a single tragic event, the fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory that killed 146 workers, young Jewish and Italian women. It is a reminiscence for so many whose grandparents lived in the same period, same places as did composer Gordon’s family
Above all, it is an opera that features the stunning music of Ricky Ian Gordon and a compelling libretto by William Hoffman. Each character, perfectly described musically and literally, is real and convincing and virtually lives on stage.
The venue, the Corbett Theatre at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, is perfect for contemporary opera. Morning Star, a perfect contemporary opera, is an ideal vehicle for young voices.
Artistic Director Evans Mirageas and Marcus Küchle have provided Gordon and Hoffman with an amazing cast that personified each character. Young voices were devastatingly beautiful and full of passion and controlled power. It was obvious that they loved their characters and made the audience love them too.
The story – Becky, a widowed Jewish mother, missing her familiar home in Riga, Latvia, but ready to see her family become heirs to the wonders of the new golden Medina – America. Three daughters, two about to be married. The suitors for their hands, a show business wannabe and a passionate future teacher.
Children to be born, a bit too early for the calendar. Esther, protecting her precious job in the shirtwaist factory is called in to work on her wedding day. Called in to go to her death in the fire.
The other love stories – Sadie, the oldest daughter loves Esther’s fiancee. He becomes her husband after Esther’s death in the fire. Aaron, living with the family, wants to marry Becky and become a success in America. He accomplishes both by the opera’s end.
Gordon’s music has a life of its own. You can hear each individual instrument spinning its tale. Each individual story is sung. Conductor Christopher Allen makes the most of the score. The stage vibrated with life under the direction of Ron Daniels.
A very clever touch. The action goes on in a room. There are chairs on each side filled with cast members. They come and go with their songs and comments. I realized that this was a perfect evocation of life in an East Side tenement. There was a family space, the bathroom down the hall shared by all. Life was shared by all.
The principals were led by Twlya Robinson as Becky. Elizabeth Zharoff as the ill–fated Esther, Jennifer Zetlan as Fanny and Elizabeth Pojanowski as the enigmatic oldest, Sadie, were the sisters. Powerfully–voiced baritone Morgan Smith, was the boarder and Becky’s suitor.
In a delightful touch, two peddlers hawking their wares were Jeanine De Bique and Larry D. Hylton. They added charm and excitement like the peddlers in Porgy and Bess. The entire cast were marvelous singers who became marvelous actors. Their characters lived, fully rounded.
Remarkable stagecraft began with the opening scene. A line of black–dressed umbrella–carrying singers appeared before a projection of a rain storm. The image made you feel they were being drenched with rain. Chorus–like, they set the story. The use of projections was creative and engrossing. Triangles were everywhere, the symbol of the central tragedy
One scene, the fire and its tragic aftermath, was a masterpiece. No actors, no singing. Newspaper articles of the time flashing across the screen, with the compelling music of Ricky Ian Gordon, evoked the deepest emotions.
The second act moved the family forward 21 years. Now, the American dream has made Aaron a successful hat manufacturer. Sadie is married to Esther’s fiancee and wants to own the hat factory. Esther appears as a ghost in a most delicate and meaningful evocation. The Great Depression is now a legacy of the American dream. Another ghost, Hymie, the kid in the first scenes, appears in his doughboy uniform in the second act, apologizing to his mother for dying on the battlefield and misting the eyes of the audience.
There were great songs. Andrew Bidlack introduced the title song, "Morning Star." I longed for Andrew to have another Gordon song to deliver. Jennifer Zetlan, an aspiring singer, is forbidden to sing by her show–biz husband Irving. She takes a simple tune, "If I’m Not allowed to Sing," into every corner of the house. Jennifer De Bique moves time forward with her African–American lament, "So Many Colors."
As a rabbi, intoning the traditional Kaddish prayer for the dead, Ken Shaw added yet another priestly role to his long list of character appearances in Cincinnati and Dayton. A long, emotion–filled scene between mother, Twyla, and daughter, Elizabeth Pojanowski, cried out for a more tuneful duet. In the same manner, duets between Twyla and her now aging would–be lover and husband, sung by Morgan, could have been a more musical showpiece.
There is so much in Morning Star to give it a long life on the opera stage. The first act told the life stories of the entire cast of principals. Almost Wagner–like, there can be some reduction in detail to let the audience’s imagination create forms of things unknown and untold.