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‘Triangle Fire’ opera to premiere in Long Beach

Valley Stream composer adapts history for the stage

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Bill Castleman, a tenor, rehearsed on Feb. 26 for his role as journalist William Gunn Shepherd in Leonard Lehrman’s opera, “The Triangle Fire.”
Bill Castleman, a tenor, rehearsed on Feb. 26 for his role as journalist William Gunn Shepherd in Leonard Lehrman’s opera, “The Triangle Fire.”
Donovan Berthoud/Herald

This story was updated at 1:51 p.m. on March 1.

Composer Leonard Lehrman dashed through his home on Court Street, pointing to various newspaper clippings and photos taped to the walls in every room.

Though his long career in music is thoroughly, and rather chaotically, documented all over his home, he knows where to find most things he’s looking for.

“I call this the library,” he said, gesturing to a small room full of books with a sign on the door that reads, “Entering clothing optional recreation area.” He also has an area upstairs filled with LPs and books that he calls the “Leonard Bernstein closet.”

He pulled open a door to the attic and said simply, “Where we’ll hide refugees in the next Holocaust.”

Lehrman, 67, is preparing for the New York premiere of his 11th opera, “The Triangle Fire,” at the Long Beach Library on March 6. He has composed 228 works to date, including operas, musicals and both solo and choral vocal compositions — many of which reflect his love of history and progressive politics.

“My parents brought me up to believe that the world needed changing for the better,” he said. “And, in fact, music was a beautiful thing in and of itself, but it was even more beautiful if it could have some good effect on the world.”

At 12, Lehrman wrote and composed a politically charged piece that dealt with atomic testing and American imperialism — which made his music teacher nervous. He approached him with the idea as the Cuban missile crisis was unfolding in October 1962.

“The music teacher was relatively new,” Lehrman recalled. “He didn’t have tenure yet, and he was terrified. He didn’t want to touch it, it was so controversial.”

So young Leonard took the idea to another teacher (who, he says, had tenure) and played him the 45-minute score. The first time he witnessed the power of music, Lehrman said, was that teacher’s reaction to the proposal: “Lenny we’re gonna do it!”

Lehrman has taught music at Cornell University, Empire State College and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He and his wife, Helene Williams, a vocalist, have collaborated on more than 600 performances since 1987.

Over the years he has performed or recorded in Russia, France and Germany, and the production posters are hung all over his house. History books and folders of sheet music are piled on two pianos in his music studio. Lehrman said he sits down at a piano only to check his work. He composes mostly in his head and on paper, in pencil.

He has degrees from Harvard and Cornell — both of which are taped, unframed, to the wall above his 1995 Macintosh computer. Though he has tried to learn to use others, he prefers software from the ’80s to create sheet music. As a result, his process of digitizing the music takes a few extra steps. He prints copies of the sheet music in one room, scans them down the hall and then emails them to himself as PDFs.

Lehrman’s latest opera centers on the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911 in Manhattan, in which 146 garment workers died. Ellen Frankel, who wrote the libretto for the opera, approached him to compose the score. He loved the idea, but insisted on collaborating with Frankel to rewrite selections of the story.

“In one word,” he said, “it’s about deregulation.”

The factory’s owners were tried for manslaughter and acquitted, and public outrage over its dangerous working conditions fueled labor law reform in New York and elsewhere. Lehrman and Frankel drew from letters, newspapers and eyewitness testimony to create the one-act chamber opera.

“The 146 victims were mostly women — mostly Jews and Italians,” Lehrman said. “In fact, this is a very important part of labor history, women’s history, Jewish history, Italian history — immigrant history. All of these things. They all converge.”

The opera will make its Long Island premiere in a free performance on Sunday, March 5, at 2:30 p.m., at the Long Beach Public Library. It will then play twice in Manhattan — on March 12, at 3 p.m., at Community Church of New York, 40 E. 35th Street, and on March 25, at 8 p.m., at New York University.