Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Lillian Alling: Tenament Life in 1920s NYC

When Lillian Alling arrived on the east coast of North America in the 1920s she was part of the post-war crush of immigrants from Europe. She joined the hordes of people processed through Ellis Island seeking prosperity, a new world, or just a fresh start. Many of these newcomers would end up living in Manhatten’s Lower East Side, in what would become known as the tenements of New York.

As immigrants flowed into New York City, builders rushed to construct housing quickly and cheaply. The most cost-effective way to meet the demand for housing was to put many families in the same building. Usually made of bricks, early tenements were built side by side on narrow lots. The law defined a tenement as any house occupied by three or more families living independently and doing their own cooking on the premises. Similar to a very small apartment, a tenement flat was usually no more than two rooms with shared toilets in the hallway. One room typically served as kitchen and living space, and the other as a bedroom. Families often set up one of these rooms as a workshop as well where they laboured for long hours, sewing clothes, rolling cigars or as in the photo below, making artificial flowers for ladies’ hats.

Many of the cramped rooms lacked fresh air and light until 1901 when new laws required landlords to construct narrow airshafts between the tightly packed buildings. Strung between the tenements, clotheslines reflected the lively spirit of the poor immigrants who inhabited the neighbourhood.

The sights, sounds, and smells of many cultures blended into a dynamic and vibrant part of New York City that was composed of several neighbourhoods, notably the East Village, Kleindeutschland (Little Germany), Five Points, Little Italy and the Bowery. All these neighbourhoods were squeezed together on a section of land in lower Manhattan just fourteen miles square.

With this snapshot into the maze of the tenements of New York City, Irene’s explanation to her son Jimmy of Lillian’s arrival suddenly makes sense:

Jimmy: Where did she go? What did she do?
Irene: “I come for to be with Jozéf Nikitich!”
Jimmy: So she found him?
Irene: The address she had was “Brooklyn, USA”. It only took her a week.
Jimmy: Holy God!

Take a tour into this world by clicking on
Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Lillian Alling: The Land Is Large

Lillian Alling is the story of a woman who walks from New York City to Vancouver and beyond, alone and driven by a motive shrouded in mystery. In John Estacio's original score for the work, we hear the chaos of Ellis Island, the jump and sway of New York City, and in a key piece of music we'll discuss today, the joy and wonder of the wide open land.

"With 'The Land Is Large', I wanted to convey Lillian's enjoyment of the countryside. Despite the fact that she is all alone on her journey and with the fear and trepidation that accompanies undertaking such a trek, she still marvels at her surroundings," says Estacio.

"Having composed a few operas already, I've learned that the scenic design in my mind always ends up costing ten times more than the budget allows," says Estacio. "So instead of imagining what the scene will look like on stage, I focus on the emotions and the motivations of the characters -- what is going on inside of these individuals while they're on stage as opposed to what the scenery looks like around them."

The land is large and smooth and green.
I hear many birds, I hear no war.
Such quiet I have not heard before…
A place of questions, not answers,
Of mistakes they do not call sins.
Here nothing,
Nothing is ending.
Everything begins!

The sample attached to this post is from a recording made early in the composition process with just a piano. So how do we get from this simple piano and vocal version to the final product we'll hear at the world premiere?

"Once I've finished the piano/vocal score, I start at the beginning again and write all the orchestral music. It's probably not the most efficient way to write an opera, but it works for me," smiles Estacio. The additional material in the score are the orchestral 'sound effects' and new rhythmic figures that enhance the sense of Lillian's motion as she walks along her path.

"What you do hear in the sample already is a moment when Lillian refers to the telegraph wires that she is following on her journey," he points out, "At that point there is a quick little burst of telegraphic rhythms from the piano (2:45) -- a short foreshadowing to the music that occurs later in Act 1 when we meet the telegraph operators, including Scotty Macdonald."

We've just received the first act score from John with all the orchestration and we are thrilled and excited by what we see and can hear in our mind's ear as we gather around the table to read over it. We think you will be too. So please have a listen to this sneak sample of 'The Land Is Large' from our upcoming world premiere opera Lillian Alling, music by John Estacio and libretto by John Murrell.

Please join us in October to see how it all comes together.

~ Image Source
Monday, June 28, 2010

Lillian Alling: Trainspotting

In the opera Lillian Alling, Lillian finds herself somewhere in the great expanse of the midwest in the summertime, and encounters another traveller on her trip to "North of Dakota". Asking how she might get there and how far it might be, he replies that she might want to hop a freight train passing by to speed her journey.

How are we going to get a freight train on stage? Just you wait and see...

In the 1920's it would not have been unusual to find a person riding the rails by illegially and secretly jumping onto a passing train and hiding in or on the freight cars. It had been a common practice as far back as the Civil War and would rise dramatically with the onset of the Great Depression (1929-1939).

Our opera takes place before the Great Depression, but at a time when cross country travel was mostly via train, rather than automobile, bus or certainly air travel. At the time, rail travel would not have been cheap (comparatively) and it would be very unlikely that Lillian could have afforded it. However, it would not have been uncommon for a number of itinerant workers to "hop a freight" while trying to make it from one job to another, often following the harvest cycles. These travellers were often known as "hobos".

Hobos, tramps and bums - there's a difference!
There's actually a hierarchy of nomenclature for the itinerant worker of no fixed address. A Hobo is a travelling worker of no fixed address outside of a work camp associated with a job (usually agricultural). A Tramp is a travelling homeless person who will work if forced to gain food or shelter. A Bum is a person with neither home nor intention to work who will rely on handouts to get by. All three would commonlly ride the rails from place to place during the time period of the opera. It's estimated that at the time of our opera there would have been between 500,000 and 700,000 hobos on the rails, making Lillian's fictional encounter a very likely one in real life. Even today, it is believed that at least 20,000 people still live the hobo lifestyle, and in Britt, Iowa there is an annual National Hobo Convention to celebrate and assist those who have chosen to "decide your own life".

How to hop a freight
First of all -- don't. It's illegal and very dangerous. The days of slow moving, open sided covered box cars are long gone. Today's trains are faster, heavier, intermodal containers or lorries with open bottoms. Hopping a freight is illegal in all states (and presumably all provinces) and trespassing on rail property carries a heavy fine and/or jail time. Many a hobo lost life or limb falling under the wheels of a train car, getting smashed between cars or their couplings, or ending up dead from hypothermia or suffocation after getting trapped inside a car.

But if you simply must try it - check here for some tips

Hobo Lingo
Over the decades a colourful slang of its own developed amongst those riding the rails. Here's some fun ones you might want to learn (full list here):

Angellina - an inexperienced kid
Bull - a rail officer, to be avoided at all costs
Cannonball - a fast train
Flip - to board a moving train
Grease the Track - to be run over by a train
Reefer - a contraction of "refrigerated car"
Catch the Westbound - to die

"That Angellina tried to flip a cannonball to get away from that bull, but instead he greased the tracks under the reefer and caught the westbound."

As a headline for this post, it makes a great word, especially since the film. However, strictly speaking, what Lillian does in the opera is "freight hopping" and not "trainspotting", which is the practice of documenting sightings of trains as a hobby.

Watch a fantastic film called Emperor of the North, starring Lee Marvin, Earnest Borgnine and a young Keith Carradine. In it, Lee Marvin tries to ride Earnest Borgnine's train all the way to Portland to win a bet, all the while trying to shake young Carradine, a wannabe hobo. It's got fightin' and cussin' and a good deal of silliness, plus a fantastic climactic fight at the very end. Directed by Robert Aldrich in 1973, it is a gem and well worth seeking out. (In Vancouver you can get it a Happy Bats Cinema)

~ all images from Emperor of the North, Lee Marvin, Lee Marvin (again), and a really scary looking Ernest Borgnine
Friday, June 25, 2010

Lillian Alling: Ellis Island Memory

I visited Ellis Island 30 years ago and I still vividly remember the feeling of the huge central arrival hall. It’s a very powerful place.

Everyone who passed through Ellis Island first had to climb a staircase that emerged in the middle of the hall. Exhausted from a long sea voyage, often in deplorable conditions, and entering a new country, it’s not difficult to imagine their fear and disorientation as they trudged down their ship’s gangplank, entered the imposing brick building, and approached the top of the stairs.

Eyeing them was a team of medical officers who were trained to recognize serious communicable diseases in the few seconds of time that elapsed as each new arrival passed by. Those who showed symptoms were ushered into observation rooms that ringed the great hall, and then on to confinement in a hospital ward on the island, or to another ship, to be sent back home. Those who passed the initial cursory inspection moved on to the next stage: interrogation, identification and, possibly, approval for entry into the United States of America.

I remember the metal staircase and its railing, the clinical white paint, the frosted glass windows, the containment pens, the sad wooden benches, the hollow sounds of human voices against hard surfaces. I remember thinking that this was what a 19th century sanitarium would feel like.

Thirty years later, I imagine Lillian Alling climbing the stairs, surrounded by hundreds of other haggard souls, speaking countless languages she cannot understand. Perhaps she has a fever or bronchitis, acquired during her voyage from Russia. Perhaps she has heard from fellow passengers that you must hide your symptoms, or you might be rejected. By the time Lillian arrived in New York, in the 1927, Ellis Island had become primarily a detention and deportation centre, and had earned its reputation as the “Island of Tears”. But Lillian is fierce, determined, and strong. She makes it onto the mainland and into Brooklyn, to begin her search for Josèf, a man to whom she is bound by family and history.

In the opera Lillian Alling, we’ll get to see how John Estacio and John Murrell, along with set and costume designer Sue LePage and projection designer Tim Matheson, depict Lillian’s experience on Ellis Island. It’s the first big chorus number in the opera, and it’s sure to be evocative and very emotional.

~ Doug Tuck, Dir. of Marketing and Community Programs
Thursday, June 24, 2010

Lillian Alling: Fashion Shock

In sharp contrast to the traditional dress of the many newcomers to North America, Lillian Alling, the title character of our new opera, would be introduced to the image of the ‘new woman’ on the streets of Brooklyn.

Costume designer Sue LePage has captured this distinction in her depiction of the passerby Lillian runs into on the streets of Brooklyn (seen above) with the men and women at Ellis Island (seen below).

Representing the dress of 1920s North America is the job of designer Sue LePage from the fashion of New York City to mid-west farming communities to early Vancouver.

Following her research of the period, she created a series of sketches that are now being interpreted by VO’s wardrobe team and transformed into the costumes on stage.

Keep checking in here as we take you from concept to final realization on this and many other aspects of the design for our world premiere opera Lillian Alling, opening our new season on Oct. 16, 2010.

~images by Sue LePage, all rights reserved
Friday, June 18, 2010

Lillian Alling: The Clothes

Lillian Alling costumes are designed by noted theatrical designer Sue LePage. In envisioning the show she had two tasks, reflect the 1920's and the modern era, and reflect the gritty reality of what it might look like walking across the continent.

The amazing photo above is of the real Lillian Alling. As you can see she's dressed for comfort, not fashion. In fact, she looks to be wearing a hodge-podge of men's and women's clothing chosen for their durability and comfort.

She stands in striking contrast to this lady of the same period:

Biggest fashion change of the 1920's? No more bustles or corsets! Now the fashion was lighter, brighter, shorter, thinner. Nothing would be more iconic for this time period than the "flapper".

The Flapper
"The Flapper" was actually a popular 1920 movie starring Olive Thomas. In it, a small town girl chases after a man of means by way of portraying herself as a bejewelled and well-dressed lady of fashion. It set the standard by which flappers were initially judged.

Here's a little picture of dear Olive.
She lived quite a life. Married Mary Pickford's brother.

She only made two more movies after The Flapper.

Died under very tragic circumstances.

The Explorer
Now compare her to Mary Shaffer Warren, Canadian explorer and mountaineer of the same period.

Mary was famous for many things, not the least of which was rediscovering what is now called Maligne Lake.

There is a fantastic book, called No Ordinary Woman (pictured) that you may want to read. It is a fascinating tale of her life of adventure.

So as you can see, Lillian Alling was caught between a revolution in fashion and the needs of the road. It will be very interesting to see these two styles on the stage during the opera.

For some fantastic information on 1920's dresses, try, there you can not only learn what they looked like, but how to make your own! Perhaps you can whip something up for our opening night October 16?
Thursday, June 17, 2010

Lillian's Russia: Civil War

In Lillian Alling, our title character comes to America seeking a new life, a life away from the tumult of her homeland, Russia. But what was happening to drive her to the shores of America?

These Guys

In 1917 the Russian Revolution was launched, overthrowing the Tsarist rule of Nicholas II, and beginning seven years of civil war that was to claim 20,000,000 lives.

In the opera, Lillian sings "I never look back" and with good reason. The period 1917 to 1925 was (as with most civil wars) a dark period for Russia and its people. Whether you were Bolshevik, Tsarist, Orthodox, or Jewish you were at constant risk of death from one of five factions at war.

The Reds: Bolsheviks led by V.I. Lenin were intent on unifiying the former Tsarist Empire under Communist rule.

The Whites: Supporters of Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia.

The Blacks: Anarchist army centered mostly in the Ukraine and in Moscow.

The Greens: The Ukrainian nationalists determined not to fall under the rule of either the Red Army, nor the White Army.

And who were the fifth group? Your friends and neighbors. In the course of an ongoing civil war, alliances changed, local groups formed and reformed, and today's ally could be tomorrow's enemy. Against this backdrop, Lillian Alling's arrival in New York is actually a journey in progress. What challenges did she face prior to her arrival and what drove her to the shores of Ellis Island?

Stay tuned to find out.

For more on the Russian Civil War Click Here

~photo credit: Wikimedia
Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Lillian Alling's Playlist: Music of the 1920's

In our world premiere opera Lillian Alling, our protagonist lands in NYC in the 1920's, the golden age of Jazz and the early years of what would come to be known as the "Roaring Twenties".

In the opera, we hear snatches of jazz-infused music throughout the New York City scenes, and at one point Lillian is serenaded by a group of boys singing some sidewalk popular music.

So what music might Lillian have been hearing as she roamed the streets of New York in search of her American contacts?

Her playlist is one to envy: George Gershwin; Louis Armstrong; Irving Berlin; Duke Ellington; Jelly Roll Morton; and Cole Porter were all active in this period.

To hear some of this fantastic music, visit us on, our online radio station, where we've loaded up some wonderful tracks for you to stream.

But first, take a listen to the very first piece of Lillian Alling that we ever recorded: Sweet Polly from Poughkeepsie

And this is just a bunch of guys from the cast, sitting around our piano for a flash recording. Can't wait to hear the final version for the show! Hope you enjoyed the sneak listen!
Monday, June 14, 2010

Lillian Emigrates

In our opera Lillian Alling, the title character is a poor Russian immigrant who lands in New York City in the early 1920's. Like today, an immigrant in the 1920's faced many challenges, not the least of which was getting in the country in the first place.

What kind of Canada would an immigrant like Lillian Alling have encountered? In the 1920’s the official policy was to accept those most like the English, with less acceptance the further one was from the WASP profile. At the bottom of the list were Jews and those who came to Canada “from the Orient.” Source

The US had a similar racial preference for those of Nordic or English heritage, as well as restricting emigration to 2% of the population of the originating country which currently resided in the US, This significant drop in allowable emigration was the result of changing law in the 1920’s in response to growing concerns about foreign-born workers undercutting wages and raising unemployment amongst native-born workers. By 1925 the US showed a net loss of foreign-born workers. As in Canada, those of Chinese and Japanese heritage were at the bottom of the list of desired immigrants. Source

As a Russian speaker, Lillian would have been far down on the list. While our opera is not specific as to her religion, some have inferred that she is also Jewish, which would have put her even further down the list of desirable immigrants. Between 1900 and 1920, less than 3% of immigrants to Canada were Russian, and only 2%were Jewish.

A blog such as this cannot begin to address the complexity of immigration activities and legislation during this period, nor can it begin to address the varied levels of acceptance that immigrants would find in the US or Canada at the time. Then, as now, immigration was a “hot button” political topic, and even the slightest review of the arguments for/against immigration reform reveals a striking similarity to the opinions expressed today.

A very interesting timeline related to events surrounding Canadian immigration can be found at the Canadian Council for Refugees website.

Another great resource to show what Lillian might have faced getting into the US in the 1920's can be found here: Source

On a final note, it is interesting that Lillian Alling would have been one of the “first wave” Russian immigrants to land on the shores of North America, a wave that brought one George Ignatieff to Canada.

images by G W Peters, source
Friday, June 11, 2010

A Long and Winding Road

An excerpt from Vancouver Foundation's latest "Success Stories" series

In the early 1920s …
A young woman named Lillian Alling arrives on the east coast of North America. Part of the post-war crush of immigrants from Europe, she joins the hordes of people seeking prosperity, a new world, or just a fresh start in America. Like millions of others, she is processed through Ellis Island, and then dumped, dazed and slack-jawed, on the burgeoning streets of New York.

And like countless others before her, penniless after the trip, Alling works menial jobs just to survive. But she grows increasingly dissatisfied with the unfulfilled promise of America. Unlike most of her fellow immigrants, Alling decides to do something about it -- she will go home. With no money for the boat fare back, she decides to walk home … to Russia.

Over the next three years, Alling is spotted, walking, in Chicago, Fargo (North Dakota), Winnipeg, and Ashcroft (BC). By 1927, she has crossed the continental US, alone and apparently on foot. Almost 4,000 km, with only the clothes on her back (men’s clothes at that; they didn’t make hiking clothes and boots for women) and a piece of lead pipe for protection.

In the fall of 1927 she stops briefly in Vancouver, preparing to head north another 2,300 km to Alaska and the Bering Strait. She ends up spending the winter on the coast, part of it in Oakalla Prison Farm. Some say she was imprisoned for swearing. Others claim the local constable put her in jail because he was concerned she would try to head north during the bitter winter months.

When spring arrives, Alling is off again, and is seen numerous times on the difficult Telegraph Trail – the only land route between Quesnel and Hazelton. There are rumours of love with a linesman, and occasional glimpses of her travelling with a dog in northern BC and Alaska. There is even an alleged report by two Inuit hunters of the time who claim to have transported a white woman across the Bering Strait.

What happened to Alling? Did she reach Russia and find her way home at last? Or perish en route?

Now, more than 80 years later …
Vancouver Opera is about to premiere a new work that tells the story of Lillian Alling and her mysterious, monumental journey.


Vancouver Foundation is a supporter of our world premiere production Lillian Alling