A Pound of Cloth: Sweatshop Labor Comes to the Opera


In the chamber opera Sweat, which premieres on October 26 at National Sawdust, a red-carpet gown is the harbinger of violence. As soon as photos hit the tabloids, a rush order for ten thousand knockoffs arrives at the sweatshop where the piece is set. Its owner (baritone Patrick McNally) and overseer (mezzo Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek) want to lock their workers in the building for as long as it takes to sew every dress.

The workers produce the soundscape of the factory floor with their mouths: clocks, humming machines, the hiss of a two-minute bathroom break, and, finally, flames and burning dust, all a cappella — without instrumental accompaniment. “A cappella is so much about trust and the collective effort of singing together,” Sweat‘s composer, Juliet Palmer, tells the Voice. “[And this is] a story about collective action [in] a situation where your individual identity isn’t important.”

The piece grew out of Palmer and librettist Anna Chatterton’s 2008 collaboration, Stitch, another a cappella opera. That one was inspired by Palmer’s family history of tailoring; Sweat is an expression of her outrage that such a personal art has been replaced by the misogyny and environmental degradation of the global garment industry — which is, in its way, just as personal. “[We’re] reminding people of the value of everything they wear, the people behind it,” Palmer says. “It’s so intimate, and yet we’re disconnected from the mostly women sewing our clothes.” (Most of Sweat‘s cast and creative team are women, too — a rarity in the opera world.)

They set the opera in no particular country, workshopping the choral music to reflect the cast’s linguistic diversity: English, Cantonese, Tamil, and Hungarian, all languages spoken in sweatshops whose abuses have attracted media attention. “[The singing] is quite pattern-based and interlocking,” says Palmer, to mirror the machinery these workers toil over daily. “There’s contrast between sections which fit together like a well-oiled machine. It’s about the sum of the parts.” Sometimes individual characters, including a union organizer (mezzo-soprano Shabnam Kalbasi), “try to shift the giant ‘machine’ in a different direction,” says Palmer, “so that music consequently is more expressive, more dramatic, more muscular or flexible.” The choral response to the union drive is to mimic the ripping of seams — sabotage by workers afraid that organizing will provoke the factory owner into cutting jobs, or worse.

At times, the chorus shifts to represent the consumers who are the ultimate beneficiaries of this system: “I don’t own the factory. I don’t own the store. I can’t save the world.” But Sweat‘s moral judgment is not focused on them, says Palmer; it’s squarely on the industry. “It’s [been] over three years since Rana Plaza” — the 2013 factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that killed more than 1,100 people — “and those safety concerns have not been addressed. There were these moments of regret expressed, but [the industry] seems very hard to shift.” In 2014, Mother Jones reported that increasing hourly wages from 15 cents to $1.50 (a living wage in Bangladesh) “wouldn’t substantially undercut profits,” but despite an increase in factory inspections and closures, the working and pay conditions remain largely unchanged. The cost of labor is a negligible part of garment production, but as Chatterton, the librettist, adds, “There’s such greed along the way that people are unwilling to relinquish the profit they’re making.”

Many studies indicate that shoppers are willing to pay more for their clothes — the vast majority of which are sewn in sweatshops — so that workers will be paid living wages. Chatterton hopes that the National Sawdust audiences, “fully knowing the conditions of sweatshops, and yet unable to resist what’s so easily available,” will feel a welter of emotions, including empathy, anger — and solidarity. “Why do we go to the opera? To release these emotions, to feel the beauty.”

That release is possible because of the power of the opera singer’s live voice, which is trained to fill the house with sound and feeling, without the aid of electronic amplification. “When you have a story about voiceless people, with this extremely powerful, physical voice giving it a story, I think it’s a very interesting and compelling juxtaposition,” says Jennifer Rivera, of Center for Contemporary Opera, the main producer of Sweat. This immediacy, in National Sawdust’s intimate 200-seat space, might forge an “empathetic connection with the lives of people we never see in real life,” concludes Palmer. “We don’t just turn the page or change the channel.”

The print version of this story misstated the opening date of  Sweat. It opens October 26, with a second performance on October 27.