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Review: SWEAT by the Bicycle Opera Project

Chantal Sundaram

March 9, 2023
Bicycle Opera Project
Music by: Juliet Palmer, libretto by Anna Chatterton
Director: Jennifer Nichols
Opera is an art form that almost always tells the story of the upper classes, but this is one that doesn’t. SWEAT is a filmed opera about life in a garment factory.
Toronto independent opera producer Bicycle Opera Project first developed SWEAT as a contemporary Canadian opera for nine singers that premiered onstage in NYC in 2016. When the pandemic hit, they decided to revisit it through film. What started as just a filmed version of the staged opera became a film in itself, with dance, movement, and cinematography shot in warehouses in Hamilton and Kingston.
SWEAT the film held its world premiere at the Kingston Canadian Film Festival, and the official program described it like this: “SWEAT tells the story of a group of women working in the garment industry and sets their individual aspirations against the demands of global capitalism.” 
The film starts with the women betting on horses to get out of their situation: the horses all have names like “Stealth Management.” But the two horses at the end of the race are called “Born Rich” and “Eat the Rich.” “Eat the Rich” wins, but it’s not cause for celebration for the women, who didn’t bet on that horse.
The rhythm of labour
The lyrics by Anna Chatterton were based on extensive research and the verbatim words used in garment sweatshops, in some cases from the reports of undercover journalists. 
But these are turned into song and spoken word that mimic the sound and rhythm of sewing production and the assembly line. It is entirely sung, but sometimes using a rhythmic spoken-word opera technique called “recitative,” based on those real words from the sweatshops that inspired it. And because it is sung “a cappella,” which means voice without any instrumental music, there is even more intense focus on those words.   
The film translates the rhythm of the sweatshop visually from stage to screen with cinematic techniques, but also from voice to movement, with a dance choreography that captures life in the factory, just as the music does. The depiction of a rush sewing job on the assembly line with the fear of failure hanging over them is physically powerful. Although some dancers were added for the film, the singers themselves, both chorus and soloists, are key to the dance choreography.
“You must be a single machine”
We hear, see and feel how the women are separate, in conflict, and also pulled together – mostly by the needs of production but then by the needs of survival beyond it. And all by using their bodies and song, with little actual dialogue beyond moments of rhythmic speech-based “recitative.”  
And even when they break out of the collective machine of their work lives we see and hear how their private lives of missing home and family are the same when they sing and dance about the tastes and feelings of home. 
“A single spark and we are dust”
That is the last, tragic line sung in SWEAT. In opera terms, it is a beautiful tragedy, but it also contains within it signs of escape. The doors of the factory were closed in the story, but not for all of us watching. 
Hundreds of young women and girls lost their lives in the March 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan, and in the 2012 garment factory fire in Dhaka Bandgladesh. But a spark can light a flame, which it did in 1911 by inspiring March 8 as a celebration of working women’s resistance to this day.
The central character in SWEAT, a worker who fights consistently for the union, is a classic opera heroine, who we identify with and root for no matter what the outcome. She triumphs in the honour of her character and the beauty of the story, whether or not there can be a happy ending – this time.
“Pin your mouths”
The women in SWEAT are repeatedly told: “pin your mouths” just like they are told to pin clothing. Don’t complain about lack of overtime pay or the locked doors, and the fire hazards that matter less than profits. And don’t tell the story of what happens when you aren’t heard, and certainly stop all that union talk.
Workers today are refusing to pin their mouths, from sweatshops to Amazon, to call centres and the gig economy. They are telling their own story where it matters most, but it doesn’t hurt for their stories to find a way into the spaces where they are rarely told.  
As the description of SWEAT’s film premiere says: “no previous opera experience is required.” 
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