Tobacco-Stained Town

Opera explores the cigarette industry’s indelible imprint on Durham


Even though the American Tobacco Company and Liggett & Myers have closed, tobacco’s presence in Durham endures. Former cigarette factories have been repurposed into vibrant, mixed-use spaces that offer housing and office space, performing-arts venues, and retail shops. Several renovated factories—including Golden Belt and Smith Warehouse—are bringing renewed life to formerly abandoned stretches of the Bull City.

Music department graduate student George Lam A.M. ’08, Ph.D. ’11 was intrigued by the complicated role that the Nicotiana plant played in the life of Durham—providing a source of steady employment for factory workers and an economic boom for Durham, followed by the decline of the tobacco industry as the deleterious health effects of smoking became well-known.

The Persistence of Smoke, Lam’s doctoral thesis, is a one-act opera that was performed in April at Golden Belt. Lam conducted oral-history interviews with retired business executives and production workers, historians, journalists, and urban planners. Playwright John Justice used the interviews, government documents, and newspaper accounts of tobacco’s decline to write a libretto. The opera centers on an architect who is poised to unveil a comprehensive plan to redevelop shuttered cigarette factories. On his way to the presentation, he is confronted by his estranged father, a former cigarette worker, who invokes tobacco’s heyday and the prosperity it generated.

The opera was directed by Jay O’Berski, assistant professor of the practice in the theater department, and featured music by the Ciompi Quartet, the Red Clay Saxophone Quartet, mezzo-soprano and adjunct professor of the practice of music Sandra Cotton A.M. ’02, soprano Nakia Verner, and baritone Scott MacLeod. The Persistence of Smoke was part of the music department’s “Encounters: with the music of our time” series, and presented in association with the Center for Documentary Studies and the Graduate School.



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