The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 was an industrial disaster that killed 146 garment workers in New York City. The fire became a touchstone for the labor movement of the 20th century. An opera inspired by the disaster tells the story from a different point of view and it's getting a special type of New York debut.
The Triangle Waist Company employed hundreds of people, mostly immigrants and women, in a sweatshop on the top three floors of New York's 10-story Asch Building. On March 25, 1911, when a fire broke out, it spread quickly. Due to the building's poor safety conditions — a rusted fire escape, broken elevators, locked doors — many burned or fell to their death. The building still stands today. Rose Imperato, Vice President of Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, says, at the time, it was considered a modern building.
"The building is fireproof. The people aren't fireproof," Imperato says.
Ricky Ian Gordon's opera Morning Star follows one Jewish immigrant family living in Manhattan's Lower East Side during the time of the infamous fire.
"My mother's mother, Rebecca Lieberman, worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory," the composer says. "On the day of the fire, she was home sick. And when her mother heard what was happening, she dragged my grandmother there."
When Eric Einhorn, founder of On Site Opera, heard that Morning Star had premiered at Cincinnati Opera in 2015, he knew he wanted to bring it to New York.
Though the fire is a pivotal moment in the opera, it's only part of the story. So, instead of staging the opera at the Asch Building (which has since been renamed the Brown Building), Einhorn decided to stage the production at the Eldridge Street Synagogue because each act of the opera is framed by the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. Einhorn says this setting gives the audience a feeling of attending a memorial service for those that died.
"Out of that comes the story about this family and this community impacted by this horrible tragedy within this incredibly holy and sacred space," Einhorn says.
Morning Star is being performed this weekend to mark the 107th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.