A mini-opera about the Everett Massacre of 1916

Feb 5, 2012

The bloodiest event in Pacific Northwest labor history, the event that left 7 people dead and many more seriously injured, is the subject of a new mini-opera by Wayne Horvitz and Robin Holcomb at Seattle's ACT Theatre.

Called "Smokestack Arias," the work tells the story of the events of Nov. 5, 1916 when two boatloads of Industrial Workers of the World -- "Wobblies" -- arrived from Seattle to Everett.

They came in support of striking shingle mill workers and in a demonstration of Free Speech.

But Everett was on edge. A few days earlier some Wobblies had been beaten and run out of town in the middle of the night. So the Wobblies, this time, organized in the hundreds and planned to arrive during the day.

Everett officials saw them as a public safety threat and when the Wobblies sailed into Everett, police, guards and civilian deputies met them and didn't let them de-board.

It's not clear who fired the first shot but a gunfight broke out and when it was over, 5 Wobblies and 2 civilian deputies -- presumed to have been shot in the back by their comrades -- were dead.

A total of 74 Wobblies were later arrested, including their leader who was charged with murder. But he was later acquitted.

The event made national headlines but it's a messy story full of nuance, says David Dilgard, an historian at the Everett Public Library.

It has an almost Shakespearian quality, Dilgard says.

"It takes a great deal of time and a great deal of discussion to make sense of it," he adds. "But the emotions involved...all those things probably lend themselves most powerfully to some form of art."

Which is where Seattle composers Horvitz and Holcomb come in.

Horvitz and Holcomb are husband and wife who've collaborated on historical works before, including an orchestral work about Joe Hill.

But the Hill piece as well as "Smokestack Arias" are works of historical fiction. Horvitz loves artistic license.

"I want people to go away with a kind of something they get from the experience that’s more than just "Oh, I learned what happened on this day at this point in time.'"

To that end, Holcomb wrote the lyrics for a series of songs sung by fictional female characters: a newspaper man's wife; the spouse of a shingle mill worker; the sister of a Wobbly; and a society woman.

"She's wondering if they (the Wobblies) were really a threat to her town," Holcomb explains.

There's also a 10-year-old girl whose parents support the striking workers. Her friends later find empty shells that get used as evidence in a murder trial.

Holcomb spent time with Dilgard, the historian, and dug into the archives in both Everett and at the University of Washington to write the lyrics.

She uses available facts to create imagined characters and feelings that may have been very real. And she says the group of characters -- all their emotions and perspectives -- allows history to be told from more than one point-of-view.

"Smokestack Arias" is set for one piano -- Cristina Valdez -- and one singer -- soprano Maria Mannisto. The work is directed by Dayna Hanson.  The work continues at ACT through .

For more information about the Everett Massacre: the archives of The Everett Public Library; the archival collection at the University of Washington; historylink.org, and Wikipedia.