Burning music

Burning music

New opera remembers Triangle Shirtwaist fire

Headlines in the New York Tribune describe the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.
Headlines in the New York Tribune describe the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.

Next month, on September 11, the Puffin Cultural Forum in Teaneck will present a new opera, “The Triangle Fire.”

The date “is not a coincidence,” said Leonard Lehrman, the opera’s composer. The horrific pictures of bodies plummeting to their deaths from a burning building on 9/11 recalled the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in 1911. One hundred and forty six garment workers died in the Triangle fire, most of them young Jewish or Italian women, many leaping out windows to their deaths with flames at their backs, many crushed before locked exit doors. The fire stood as the signal disaster in New York City’s history for 90 years.

It was a tragedy that became a watershed in the fight for the rights of American workers. Frances Perkins, a social worker who headed the New York City committee investigating worker safety after the tragedy and went on to become Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s secretary of labor and the first female cabinet member, said that the fire and its aftermath was the beginning of the New Deal.

This is the fifth opera that Mr. Lehrman has brought to the Puffin. It will be a concert performance, featuring only a piano rather than a full orchestra. Some of Mr. Lehrman’s earlier operas dealt with radical activists, including Emma Goldman, Nicola Sacco, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. The idea of this work, however, came from the work’s librettist, Ellen Frankel. Ms. Frankel is better known as a writer — her many books include “The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah” — and as long-time editor in chief of the Jewish Publication Society for nearly 20 years until retiring in 2009.

Ms. Frankel entered the world of opera-writing “somewhat by accident,” she said.

Twenty years ago, the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony commissioned a work from composer Andrea Clearfield. “Women of Valor” featured the stories 10 biblical women, and Ms. Clearfield wanted to use texts from “The Book of Miriam” for two of them. Ms. Frankel happily gave permission. And then Ms. Clearfield asked Ms. Frankel to write a new text for the character of Hannah.

“I learned I enjoyed working with music and composers,” Ms. Frankel said.

When Ms. Clearfield was commissioned to write an oratorio on the Golem of Prague, she brought in Ms. Frankel for the libretto.

“I was kind of hooked,” Ms. Frankel said.

By now, she has worked with 10 different composers.

It’s a different process than writing a book.

Leonard Lehrman, left, and Ellen Frankel
Leonard Lehrman, left, and Ellen Frankel

“From the very beginning it’s collaborative,” she said. “You hand the words over to a composer and then the next part of the process is a negotiation between the music and the words.”

Sometimes a composer might want another line in a stanza or extra syllables in a line.

“As the wordsmith I’m a midwife to the composer and to the music that’s going to be written,” she said. “Most people can’t name even a single librettist. Most people don’t know who wrote the words. They remember Puccini or Verdi or Mozart, the composers.”

Ms. Frankel said she always has been fascinated by the Triangle fire.

“My two grandfathers were tailors,” she said. “One on the Lower East Side, one in Brooklyn. One of my grandmothers also sewed for a living, out of her house.”

The idea of making an opera out of the fire came during a contest at the Atlanta Opera. “It was a 24 hour contest,” she said. “You write a scene in 12 hours that is rehearsed for 12 hours and performed at the end of 24.

“I was paired at random with a composer. They gave us props from the prop room.”

Handed an old-fashioned, stove-heated iron, she thought of the Triangle fire. Her collaborator had never heard of it. “We wrote the piece, it was performed, it didn’t win,” she said.

But she wanted to pursue the idea further. Her composer in Atlanta couldn’t pursue the project, so she sought out a new collaborator and eventually found Mr. Lehrman. “He loved the subject,” Ms. Frankel said. “He’s someone who writes about progressive causes and workers and unions.”

Much has been written and published about the fire and its aftermath. The two owners of the factory — both Jewish — were prosecuted for negligence. They were acquitted.

Garment workers mourn the loss of 146 colleagues in the 1911 inferno.
Garment workers mourn the loss of 146 colleagues in the 1911 inferno.

The transcript of the trial serves as the starting point for Ms. Frankel’s libretto.

“I couldn’t put 2,000 pages of testimony in an hour opera,” she said. “I had to pick moments where characters come into powerful conflict, or where there was a moment of comedy or a moment of pathos. It’s not as straightforward a process as you would have in a play or a novel. In an opera you have a string of moments that are driven by powerful feelings.”

In the first draft of the opera, Ms. Frankel added drama at the expense of accuracy.

“She had one of the bosses infatuated with one of the seamstresses,” Mr. Lehrman said. “He saved the life of one of the workers at the expense of many others.”

“I was writing the opera last January and February. My wife and I performed it in a concert on Valentine’s Day. Then we started talking with people and reading more.

Leigh Benin, a historian who has written on the fire and whose great aunt died in it, told Mr. Lehrman that “You’re going to offend everybody.”

In truth, Mr. Lehrman said, the factory owner who Ellen imagined as sweet on the seamstress was a family man who saved his two daughters and lost several family members, and the witness who testified against him fought to get out of the burning building.

Ms. Frankel suggested cutting the scene. Mr. Lehrman said “I can’t cut it. The opera is based on it. We’re going to rewrite it based on actual facts.”

In the end, “We don’t have a love scene, but we have a very dramatic, very true-to-life scene.”

The headstone of 17-year-old Tilli Kupferschmid, who died in the fire.
The headstone of 17-year-old Tilli Kupferschmid, who died in the fire.

Mr. Lehrman contrasts the decision to rewrite the opera to be more accurate with the dramatization that proved so controversial in the opera “Death of Klinghoffer” by his Harvard classmate John Adams.

“I don’t think he did the right thing” by adding fictional elements, Mr. Lehrman said. “We’re doing the right thing.”

The finished opera does include one element that’s not from the history of the Triangle fire. “After the Atlanta project, before I started expanding it, the Rana Plaza tragedy happened in Bangladesh in 2013 and 1,100 workers were killed,” Ms. Frankel said. “The owner of that building is still being prosecuted. It’s not clear who is going to be blamed ultimately.”

The workers in that building were making clothing for American retailers, insulated from American labor standards because they were overseas, working through complex networks of subcontractors designed to insulate the American companies from responsibility for their workers.

“Labor laws were enacted in America after the Triangle fire,” she said. “Then we exported the garment industry to the Third World. There are still factories making clothing that we all buy at cheap prices at the expense of workers. The Triangle Factory fire is not over. The same conditions exist, and the same tragedies keep occurring, and we’re all implicated.

“In the very last scene of the opera, the ghosts of the Triangle Fire join with the ghosts of the Rana Plaza collapse to sing about what’s happening in the world and how corporations are still doing what was done by the two owners back in 1911,” she said.

“The Triangle Fire” is Mr. Lehrman’s 11th opera, and his 222nd work overall. He describes the music as “very lyrical and dramatic. A lot of it is almost ragtime in its period feel.

“There’s also a lot of abstract music,” he said. He made musical puns on the images of the triangle and the ninth floor, where the fire started and most of the workers died.

“Every time the word ninth is used, the interval is a ninth. When triangle is mentioned, the octave is trisected,” he said.

Mr. Lehrman began composing music before he could read or write. “I improvised when I was very young and wanted to write it down to remember it,” he said. “My parents gave me a toy piano with eight keys and eight colors and I was drawing with crayons, devising my own notation. I started really seriously writing notation when I was eight.

“The first musical I wrote was about atomic testing and American imperialism. It was written during the Cuban Missile Crisis and my junior high school music wouldn’t touch it,” he said. “But my social studies teacher produced it without him.”

What: Concert performance of “The Triangle Fire” by Leonard Lehrman and Ellen Frankel

Where: Puffin Cultural Forum, 20 Puffin Way, Teaneck

When: 4 p.m., Sunday, September 11

Admission: $10

Reservations: (201) 836-3514

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