Fire in my mouth European Premiere

January 23, 2024

Julia Wolfe’s critically-acclaimed Fire in my mouth receives its European premiere January 26-27 by the Gothenburg Symphony, Santtu-Matias Rouvali — conductor, and the Gothenburg Symphony Womens’ and Girls’ choir, with Anne Kauffman (director), Jeff Sugg (scenic, lighting, video and production designer) and Márion Talán (costume designer).

Listen to New York Philharmonic recording

Premiered in January 2019 by the New York Philharmonic, Fire in my mouth is based on the garment industry in New York at the turn of the century, with a focus on the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and its aftermath. Drawing upon contemporary accounts of immigration, labor and activism amongst the garment workers of the Lower East Side, Fire in my mouth brings the world and words of the garment workers to the forefront.

For Wolfe, Fire in my mouth was an opportunity to recast the women not as voiceless victims, but as protagonists whose actions and sacrifices had a profound effect on United States history. Wolfe writes:

I had been thinking about immigrant women in the workforce at the turn of the century. They fled their homelands to escape poverty and persecution. The garment workers arrived to these shores with sewing skills. Many of the women wound up working on these huge factory floors—hundreds of women sitting at sewing machines. Fire in my mouth tells the story of the women who persevered and endured challenging conditions, women who led the fight for reform in the workplace.

The piece also incorporates elements derived from protest chants, courtroom testimonials, Yiddish and Italian folk songs, and an elegiac recitation of all of the victims’ names.

Upon its premiere, critics noted Fire in my mouth for its sensitivity to the subject matter, as well as its emotional impact and inventiveness. David Hajdu of The Nation called Fire in my mouth “a monumental achievement in high musical drama, among the most commandingly imaginative and emotively potent works of any kind that I’ve ever experienced.” Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times writes, “The way these songs are embedded in Ms. Wolfe’s agitated, heaving orchestra, they seem like alternative coping mechanisms for the oppressed.”

Fire in my mouth is the third in a series of compositions by Wolfe that highlight monumental and turbulent moments in American history and culture, and the people—both real and imagined, celebrated and forgotten—that defined them. Wolfe’s recent works Her Story and unEarth expand this series to Women’s rights and Climate Change, respectively. Her Story was premiered by the Nashville Symphony in September 2022, with successive premieres through early 2023 by the Chicago Symphony, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the San Francisco Symphony. The work pays tribute to the centuries of ongoing struggle for equal rights and representation for women in America. unEarth, commissioned and premiered by the New York Philharmonic in June 2023, addresses the climate crisis and is realized with spatial staging and scenic design projected on a large circular screen.

2009’s Steel Hammer (Wolfe’s first work in this series of compositions) examined the folk-hero John Henry, reveling in the contradictions of over 200 different versions of his life to tell a story which transcends time and space. Her 2014 oratorio Anthracite Fields honored the workers of the Pennsylvania Anthracite coal region at a time when the industry fueled the nation. The Los Angeles Times wrote that the work “captures not only the sadness of hard lives lost…but also of the sweetness and passion of a way of daily life now also lost. The music compels without overstatement. This is a major, profound work.”