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"Morning Star" to Debut in Cincinnati

Laura A. Hobson
Posted: Jun 22, 2015 - 12:49:10 PM in news_2015

For the first time in more than fifty years, Cincinnati Opera is bringing a world premiere to the stage.

"Morning Star," composed by Ricky Ian Gordon, with libretto by William M. Hoffman, opens June 30 at the School for Creative and Performing Arts in Cincinnati. 

Beginning as a workshop production of Opera Fusion: New Works, "Morning Star" is the story of Russian-Jewish immigrants struggling against the backdrop of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which killed 146 garment workers in New York City in 1911. It continues through World War I, the Great Depression and follows the growth of the American Labor Movement.  

Opera Fusion: New Works is a partnership between the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and Cincinnati Opera to develop and produce new American opera. It began four years ago with a $300,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Workshops have a ten-day residency. 

Starring Twyla Robinson as Becky, Elizabeth Pojanowski as Sadie, Andrew Bidlack as Irving Tashman, and Morgan Smith as Aaron Greenspan, the opera mirrors Gordon’s life. He came from a Jewish family in New York with a grandmother who worked in the shirtwaist factory. In over two hours, it sees the Felderman family deal with job issues, family relationships, unwanted pregnancies, delayed marriages and unfulfilled dreams and deaths, all taking place from 1911 to 1930, during a turbulent time in American history. Christopher Allen, assistant conductor of Los Angeles Opera, conducts the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

In the early 2000’s, Lyric Opera of Chicago approached Gordon about a collaboration with the Goodman Theater. Richard Pearlman, former director of Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center, suggested "Morning Star," the play written by Sylvia Regan in 1940. Gordon read the play: “It was such a strong feeling. I had goose bumps and hair standing on end.” He wanted rights to the play so he could develop an opera.

Gordon chose Bill Hoffman to write the lyrics. Hoffman read the play and loved it, according to Gordon. “Morning Star had everything I wanted,” Gordon said. However, after a workshop of the piece at Lyric Opera, the collaboration did not go forward for a number of reasons and Gordon shelved it.    

Earlier in his career, Gordon contacted Evans Mirageas, Harry T. Wilks Artistic Director of Cincinnati Opera, and asked for a meeting. Mirageas agreed to have lunch with him in New York. The pair clicked. Mirageas later attended "Grapes of Wrath," one of Gordon’s previous pieces, and read "Home Fires," the book about his family.  

Robin A. Guarino, J. Ralph Corbett Distinguished Chair of Opera at CCM, called Gordon and asked him to participate in Opera Fusion: New Works, of which she is the co-artistic director along with Marcus Küchle, director of artistic operations at Cincinnati Opera. At first Gordon declined, but then offered to reintroduce "Morning Star." Guarino and Küchle agreed, with the caveat that Cincinnati Opera would not guarantee production.  

By the end of the first workshop with Opera Fusion, Mirageas told Gordon that Cincinnati Opera would produce "Morning Star," but that it still needed some work. Specifically, he mentioned that the Triangle Fire was a major motivator which needed more direct connection to the piece. The opera went back into workshop.

Director Ron Daniels was recommended. Daniels is direct and asks questions, said Gordon, who knew that major changes needed to be made before the opera was ready for the stage. Gordon wrote new songs for the opera. About being chosen to direct the play, Daniels said, “You never ask. The phone rings and you say yes.” Although Daniels lives in New York, he travels nationally and internationally to direct. He said his plate is full for the next one-and-a-half years.

“How do we frame the opera in relation to the fire?” Mirageas asked. Daniels, Gordon and Hoffman decided to make the fire bookend the opera, e.g., it opens and closes the production.

Mirageas said there was the usual creative process, with stumbling blocks including finding the right cast, obtaining funding and determining timing.  Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati provided $50,000 and other donors came forward. “Working on a new opera has its challenges and its rewards,” he said:  In particular, he noted that "Morning Star" has a living composer and librettist, while traditional operas by Verdi and Puccini do not.

There was creative tension, according to Mirageas, but the arguments were among intelligent people with the same goal: They all wanted an excellent production. “There is always risk with any unfamiliar opera,” said Mirageas.  Core patrons know of Gordon’s work; the general public might not.

“It’s the human condition,” said Gordon. “We kibitz; we’re petty, even though we know we are going to die.” When this reporter talked to Gordon on June 19, he had just seen the first run-through of his creation the previous day. “It was a rough day and a moving day,” he said. “I was sobbing at the end."

Cincinnati Opera is contributing to the art form, said Mirageas. He cited a new golden age of American opera throughout the country. What makes this opera unique is that it could be Gordon’s own story, said Mirageas. And it is a universal story: everyone can name someone who came to the United States without money. “This is an opera not populated with kings and queens,” he said.

Gordon describes his musical style as eclectic. “I was obsessed with Joni Mitchell, Benjamin Britten, Samuel Barber and Kurt Weill,” among other composers, he said. “I consider myself a trash can of influences."

The Opera has sponsored several events to introduce "Morning Star" to the general public. A documentary produced by Steve Bognar and Julie Reichert about the creation of the opera aired June 11 at Kenwood Theatre. Mirageas also hosted a question-and-answer session with several production team members, including Daniels and Peter Landgren, dean and Thomas James Kelly Professor of Music at CCM. A meet-and-greet was held with the creative team on June 22 at Music Hall.

Morning Star is a Singspiel, Daniels explained: There is spoken dialogue, like a play, and music was added. “It is an intimate story with a wide public forum,” he said. “Our job is to tell stories. It is as simple as that.”    

Gordon is a noted vocal music composer, his works including "Grapes of Wrath" in 2007. His operas center on American life and include a wide variety of musical genres. Of "Morning Star," Gordon said, “This is a broader look at the human condition." 

The opera ends with Rabbi Engel singing Kaddish, a hymn of praises, as Esther and her friend Mary leap to their deaths at the Shirtwaist Factory.  

Busy with upcoming work, Gordon is composing "Intimate Apparel" on commission for the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In 2017, he will open a shortened version of "Grapes of Wrath" in St. Louis. Houston Grand Opera has asked him to mount his opera "House Without a Christmas Tree."

Performances  of "Morning Star" are June 30, July 2, 8, 10 and 17 at 7:30 p.m.; also July 12 and July 19 at 3:00 p.m. in Corbett Theater at the School for Creative and Performing Arts. Tickets are $25-$105, available by calling (513) 241-2742. Running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission. Information at http://www.cincinnatiopera.org/

(For the record, Cincinnati Opera's last world premiere was "Enter Pauline" by Joseph Surdo in 1929.)