Tuesday is the long-anticipated opening of Morning Star, Cincinnati Opera’s first world premiere in more than 50 years. When the lights go up in the School for Creative and Performing Arts’ Corbett Theater, it will mark the culmination of an odyssey spanning more than 15 years for composer Ricky Ian Gordon and his librettist William M. Hoffman, and a three-year journey for Cincinnati Opera.
Based on a 1940 play by Sylvia Regan, Morning Star chronicles a Russian Jewish family struggling to assimilate into early 20th-century America, with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire serving as the central event — in 1911, 146 workers, mostly immigrant women, died in a fire in a Manhattan garment factory whose locked doors prevented any chance of escape.
Becky Felderman, a widow with three daughters and a young son, is determined to survive in America. The struggle reaches across ethnic and racial lines, as Irish and African-American families face similar challenges.
The story had resonance for Gordon and Hoffman, whose families came from the same backgrounds. In Gordon’s case, there was an even eerier connection. “My grandmother, Rebecca Lieberman, worked at the Triangle but she was sick on the day of the fire,” he says.
Gordon, a prolific composer, and Hoffman, who wrote the play As Is and the libretto for The Ghosts of Versailles, were commissioned by Lyric Opera of Chicago and Goodman Theatre to write the opera. The collaborative fell apart and Morning Star was shelved, but not forgotten.
The opera got a second chance in 2012, thanks to Opera Fusion: New Works, the collaboration between Cincinnati Opera and the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music that provides an intensive 10-day workshop for new/as yet unproduced operas.
When Gordon got an invitation to submit a new work in the fall of 2012, he jumped at the chance to revisit Morning Star.
“The heart of this piece was already beating wildly,” he says. “Bill [Hoffman] and I felt the piece was still growing inside us, and that history had a lot more to say about the characters.”
The first workshop brought Gordon and Hoffman together with Ron Daniels, an internationally renowned director of theater and opera. He and the Opera Fusion workshop were exactly what Morning Star needed.
“Without Opera Fusion and Ron Daniels, there never would have been rewrites,” Gordon says. “Ron is the perfect person; he’s guided us back to the play for inspiration.”
“Ron is one big raised eyebrow,” he adds with a laugh.
Eyebrows needed raising, according to Marcus Küchle, co-director of Opera Fusion along with Robin Guarino of CCM. “We saw the artistic promise, although there were problems with the libretto,” Küchle says. “But we saw enough potential that we decided to invest in a second workshop.”
Once again, Daniels helped steer the composer and librettist toward greater character development in the story and the music.
“At the first workshop, Ron convinced us that the original idea to put the Triangle Shirtwaist fire at the end of the first act didn’t work,” Gordon says. “He said, ‘What on earth are you supposed to do after that?’ So we reworked it, and now it’s a framing device.”
Hoffman created lines for characters to voice their hopes and despair against the background of the factory. “These characters had no history, and Bill gave them a one-minute window that gave us their dreams,” Gordon says. “It was wonderful writing music for that.”
“Bill created extraordinary poetry during this process,” he continues. “The African-American character Prince has an aria about being a fishmonger on the Lower East Side, and it’s one of the most beautiful lyrics I’ve ever seen.”
Further discussions led to creating a neutral setting that allowed performers to portray more than one character. In the opera’s first incarnation, each singer had a specific role. Now, most of the cast plays multiple characters.
Judging from the workshop performances, the score will be vintage Gordon: soulful, expressive and exquisitely tailored for the voice. “The whole piece now feels personal, and that’s how I wrote it,” he says. “All of it resonates.”
“The process with Opera Fusion has been so useful,” Gordon continues. “No one knows how much trust it takes to collaborate. I put a lot of my blood into Morning Star.”
MORNING STAR opens Tuesday and runs for seven performances through July 19 at SCPA’s Corbett Theater. More info: cincinnatiopera.com.