You may be interested in attending a performance of a new one-act opera, Triangle Fire, with music by Leonard Lehrman and a libretto by Ellen Frankel. It’s being performed Saturday, March 25, 2017, at 8:00 pm – $10 suggested donation; no one turned away
at 8 PM
at New York University, Room 220, 32 Waverly Place (at the corner of University Place).
The opera, a Puffin Foundation commission, commemorates the fire that broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911, killing 146 garment workers, most of them young Jewish and Italian women, recently arrived from Europe. It was one of the worst industrial accidents in American history.
For further information: www.tinyurl.com/TriangleFire-Opera
About the Creators
Librettist: Ellen Frankel‘s works include Women of Valor, The Esther Diaries, R.U.R., and Mothers of Moses, with various composers. This is their first collaboration together
About the opera
On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in lower Manhattan, killing 146 garment workers, most of them young Jewish and Italian women recently arrived from Europe. It was one of the worst industrial accidents in American history. Ten days later, 400,000 New Yorkers participated in a funeral march honoring the Triangle victims. Public outrage over the dangerous working conditions, including doors locked to prevent worker theft, led to major reforms in New York’s and then the nation’s labor laws, and strengthened the growing union movement, which many of the Triangle workers had fought for in a strike two years before. But when Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the Triangle’s owners, known popularly as “the Shirtwaist Kings,” were put on trial for manslaughter that December, they were acquitted. Blanck and Harris were awarded $400 per victim from their insurance. The victims’ families received an average of $75 in compensation.
This is the first opera ever to focus exclusively on the subject, its aftermath, and the ramifications for today. Focusing on the trial in the courtroom of Judge Thomas Crain, and drawing from the transcript and newspaper accounts, the work explores a human triangle central to this story, with the Triangle Factory’s owners at its apex, and the two trial lawyers on opposing sides: Debating the owners’ culpability are defense lawyer Max David Steuer, a Jewish immigrant and former garment worker, who has worked his way up to become “the Million Dollar Lawyer,” favored defender of gangsters and Tammany Hall pols; and the conservative well-to-do New York Assistant District Attorney, Charles F. Bostwick. The prosecution focuses its entire case on a single victim, 24-year-old Margaret Schwartz. Harris’s and Blanck’s guilt or innocence hinges on the charred door lock found in the rubble of the ninth floor where Margaret worked—and died. Did the owners deliberately lock the door, which trapped Margaret and her fellow workers inside the blazing inferno? Or if they didn’t, did they culpably know that the door was locked?
The prosecution’s key witness is 19-year-old Kate Alterman, a sewing machine operator and Margaret’s best friend, who watched her friend burn in front of that locked door. In a flashback, Kate recalls calling for the doors to be unlocked, as the trapped women cried “Save us! Es brennt!” while Max grabbed his daughters out of the elevator, taking them to the roof, and Isaac tried to rescue as many as he could. Under intense cross-examination by the defense attorney, Kate’s testimony is discredited. When the jury returns its verdict, Blanck and Harris are acquitted. But it is the victims who have the last word. At the end of the opera, the ghosts of the Triangle workers are joined by the ghosts of other garment workers killed in a 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, reminding us that the lessons of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire have not yet been learned by those who hold the keys to power.