Chamber Opera in One Act
Music by George Lam, Libretto by John Justice


Kevin (baritone)
Curtis (bass-baritone)
Skylar (mezzo-soprano)
Woman (soprano)



The Persistence of Smoke

(2011, 55′)

Chamber Opera in One Act
Music by George Lam
Libretto by John Justice

First Performance

April 15 and 16, 2011
Golden Belt
Durham, NC

Presented in a double-bill with Kathleen Bader’s Tentative Embrace
Part of the Duke University Department of Music’s Encounters concert series
in association with the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies and the Duke University Graduate School

Sandra Cotton (Skylar)
David Weigel (Curtis)
Scott MacLeod (Kevin)
Nakia Verner (Woman)

George Lam, conductor
Jay O’Berski, director

About the opera

The Persistence of Smoke began as a documentary opera. The libretto is based on interviews with various individuals related to the former Liggett and Myers Tobacco Company headquarters in Durham, North Carolina.

The cigarette industry once dominated Durham, but saw its decline in the 1990s as the link between cancer and smoking became increasingly clear. The American Tobacco Company and the Liggett and Myers Tobacco Company were once the biggest cigarette manufacturers in the city. As these companies left Durham, their factories and tobacco warehouses first sat vacant, but were gradually preserved and transformed into new spaces for offices, apartments and restaurants.

This project focused on the former Liggett and Myers headquarters along Main Street, a collection of buildings now known as “West Village”. I interviewed current and former Durham residents who had a connection with these buildings, including local business representatives, community leaders, former Liggett employees, historians, current residents in the downtown area, municipal urban planners, journalists, and an architect. These interviews were given to local playwright John Justice, who created a libretto based on the themes that emerged.

The opera’s story focuses on Kevin, an architect about to unveil his visionary master plan for redeveloping several defunct cigarette factories in an unnamed city. As Kevin leaves his newly renovated apartment for the press conference, he is confronted by his estranged father Curtis, a former cigarette worker who desperately wants to reconcile and reconnect, deliriously recalling the glory days of tobacco and the money that followed.

Performance History

September 25, 2010
New York, NY
Bryce Smith (Curtis)
Robert Maril (Kevin)
Elisabeth Halliday (Skylar)
Kelly Horsted, piano
Zach Herchen, recording engineer

November 15, 2010
Nelson Music Room
Duke University
Durham, NC

Scott MacLeod (Kevin)
Fred Rice (Curtis)
Sandra Cotton (Skylar)
Glenn Mehrbach, piano

April 15 and 16, 2011
Golden Belt
Durham, NC

There was so much depth to the show! I think this is an opera with staying-power.

- Classical Voice of North Carolina