Composer-musician Bradley Kemp thought he had an awkward conversation ahead of him. He’d begun collaborating with writer Patrick Keppel on Keppel’s libretto for an opera about the deadly Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. But he wanted to make an adjustment to the staging.
“I had to get on a bus and go up to Boston and tell Patrick that I want to make his opera into a puppet show, and he’s going to kill me,” Keppel remembers. “I cautiously threw the idea at him, I think over a beer and a cigar. He said, ‘No, that’s perfect. I didn’t want to do a straight opera either.’ ”
The distinctions among performance types are blurred in the resulting work, “Triangle.” Its creators tend to settle on the term “puppet play,” but the one-act performance incorporates elements of opera, drama, and puppetry, with musicians improvising a live score and a sense of in-the-moment creation permeating everything.
Keppel, a playwright and short-story writer who is chair of the liberal arts department at New England Conservatory, already had the libretto in his “back pocket,” he says, when former student Kemp got in touch to suggest they work together on an opera. With the text more or less in place as the spine of the piece, they created the other elements through a series of group improvisations.
Leads Michael Douglas Jones and Amy Carrigan sing the parts of factory co-owner Max Blanck and a veteran, activist employee named Joan, while a group of three other factory workers sit at a work table. At a nearby station, puppeteers Jamie Moore and Finn Campman manipulate a “worker puppet” in an impressionistic embodiment of the subjects’ struggle.
For the performance of “Triangle” at NEC’s Brown Hall on Thursday, Kemp will play acoustic bass and lead a group including Boston-area percussionist Jeff Balter and NEC students on soprano and bass clarinet. Three students will also take on the supporting vocal parts.
Keppel says he warmed immediately to the puppet idea because it adds a multimedia aspect to the performance, and layers in a sort of subconscious narrative alongside the primary one. “The thing I’ve learned about puppets is they’re uncanny beings. They remind us — I think because they’re inanimate stuff that’s being animated in front of your very eyes — of our own animation. As an audience we give so much more to puppets than we do to humans onstage. We allow more of our subconscious to be tapped.”
A classical major at NEC, Kemp originally sat down to write a through-composed score. But in fleshing out ideas with a small group of musicians, he found that improvisation suited the piece well. In each of the performance’s previous incarnations — including its 2011 debut at the Center for Performance Research, in Brooklyn, N.Y., and two performances last year at the Sandglass Theater in Putney, Vt. — different musical ensembles have improvised their way through the story, working from a central theme and a few planned musical gestures.
“With every instrument there’s a lot of extended technique. We’re pulling a lot of odd sounds out of our instruments. It’s textured and dark and haunted,” Kemp says. “The script goes back and forth between ultra-realism to ultra-magical-realism, if you will. And I feel like the music almost always represents the sort of dark undercurrent of the story.”
A member of the new-music ensemble Anti-Social Music, Kemp is a busy composer. But he says work at NEC with the late Joe Maneri figures largely in his efforts in the field of improvisation.
The story is framed by scenes set seven years after the 1911 fire in which 146 garment workers, mostly young, immigrant women, were killed — unable to escape the burning building in part because the door to a stairwell was locked, in a measure intended to deter theft. While employees on floors directly beneath and above escaped, many young women jumped to their deaths from ninth-floor windows, as onlookers who’d gathered on the sidewalk watched from below.
Though the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire fueled momentum to the movement for government-imposed safety standards in the workplace, Kemp and Keppel say they’ve chosen the subject not as an antique example of the bad old days, but because its relevance is sadly persistent. Kemp’s blog updates to the website for “Triangle,” with titles like “Another Locked Door” and “History Is Ever Present,” drive the point home.
“There are fires every single week in Bangladesh,” Keppel says, citing a recent newspaper story on the topic. He aims not to demonize the Triangle factory owners, he says, but to stress that systemic factors, like industry standards promoting bigger profits, set the stage for the tragedy. “I don’t want to give him a pass or anything — he locked the doors,” Keppel says of Blanck, as asserted in “Triangle.”
“But he’s a trapped man too, because he has to act inhumanely in order to be who he is. He would have been dysfunctional to say, hey, they’re really not getting paid enough and they’re working too much. That’s the systemic truth of it.”