Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

In Parenthesis, Welsh National Opera in London

‘A century after the Somme, who still stands with Britain?’ So read a headline in yesterday’s Evening Standard on the eve of the centenary of the first day of that battle which, 141 days later, would grind to a halt with 1,200,000 British, French, German and Allied soldiers dead or injured.

Die Walküre, Opera North

A day is now a very long time indeed in politics; would that it were otherwise. It certainly is in the Ring, as we move forward a generation to Die Walküre.

Early Gluck arias at the Wigmore Hall

If composers had to be categorised as either conservatives or radicals, Christoph Willibald Gluck would undoubtedly be in the revolutionary camp, lauded for banishing display, artifice and incoherence from opera and restoring simplicity and dramatic naturalness in his ‘reform’ operas.

Das Rheingold, Opera North

Das Rheingold is, of course, the reddest in tooth and claw of all Wagner’s dramas - which is saying something.

Peter Grimes in Princeton

The Princeton Festival presents one opera annually, amidst other events. Its offerings usually alternate annually between 20th century and earlier operas. This year the Festival presented Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, now a classic work, in a very effective and moving production.

Scintillating Strauss in Saint Louis

If you like your Ariadne on Naxos productions as playful as a box of puppies, then Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is the address for you.

Saint Louis Takes On ‘The Scottish Opera’

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis took forty years before attempting Verdi’s Macbeth but judging by the excellence of the current production, it was well worth the wait.

Anatomy Theater: A Most Unusual New Opera

On June 16, 2016, Los Angeles Opera with Beth Morrison Projects presented the world premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang's Anatomy Theater at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT).

Shalimar in St. Louis: Pagliaccio Non Son

In its compact forty-year history, the ambitious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has just triumphantly presented its twenty-fifth world premiere with Shalimar the Clown.

Jenůfa, ENO

The sharp angles and oddly tilting perspectives of Charles Edwards’ set for David Alden’s production of Jenůfa at ENO suggest a community resting precariously on the security and certainty of its customs, soon to slide from this precipice into social and moral anarchy.

The “Other” Marriage of Figaro in a West Village Townhouse

Last week an audience of 50 assembled in the kitchen of a luxurious West Village townhouse for a performance of Marriage of Figaro.

West Wind: A new song-cycle by Sally Beamish

In a recent article in BBC Music Magazine tenor James Gilchrist reflected on the reason why early-nineteenth-century England produced no corpus of art song to match the German lieder of Schumann, Schubert and others, despite the great flowering of English Romantic poetry during this period.

Florencia en el Amazonas, NYCO

With the New York Premiere of Florencia en el Amazonas, the New York City Opera Steps Out of the Shadows of the Past

Idomeneo, re di Creta, Garsington

Opportunities to see Idomeneo are not so frequent as they might be, certainly not so frequent as they should be.

Don Carlo in San Francisco

Not merely Don Carlo, but the five-act Don Carlo in the 1886 Modena version! The welcomed esotericism of San Francisco Opera’s extraordinary spring season.

Jenůfa in San Francisco

The early summer San Francisco Opera season has the feel of a classy festival. There is an introduction of Spanish director Calixto Bieito to American audiences, a five-act Don Carlo and two awaited, inevitable role debuts, Karita Mattila as Kostelnička and Malin Bystrom as Janacek's Jenůfa.

Musings on the “American Ring

Now that the curtain has long fallen on the third and last performance of the Ring cycle at the Washington National Opera (WNO), it is safe to say that the long-anticipated production has been an unqualified success for the company, director Francesca Zambello, and conductor Philippe Auguin.

Nabucco, Covent Garden

Most of the attention during this revival of Daniele Abbado’s 2013 production of Nabucco has been directed at Plácido Domingo’s reprise of the title role, with the critical reception somewhat mixed.

The Cunning Little Vixen, Glyndebourne

Four years ago, almost to the day (13th to 12th), I saw Melly Still’s production of The Cunning Little Vixen during its first Glyndebourne run. I found myself surprised how much more warmly I responded to it this time.

London: A 90th birthday tribute to Horovitz

This recital celebrated both the work of the Park Lane Group, which has been supporting the careers of outstanding young artists for 60 years, and the 90th birthday of Joseph Horovitz, who was born in Vienna in 1926 and emigrated to England aged 12.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Toni Morrison
26 Sep 2007

Margaret Garner at NYCO

The New York City Opera’s production of Richard Danielpour’s and Toni Morrison’s opera, Margaret Garner, boldly faces the ugly history of slavery in the United States, and the racism inherent in the institution of opera.

Above: Toni Morrison

 

It is difficult to criticize a work that is so optimistic in its scope, and indeed, one that is the collaborative effort of two giants in their fields such as Richard Danielpour and Toni Morrison are. And yet, despite the ovations from the audience (especially for Morrison), despite the excitement generated by opening night at the City Opera, the opera felt a little flat. This is in part attributable to the one-dimensional nature of the characters in Margaret Garner: without exception they are either wholly good or wholly evil. Librettist Morrison and composer Danielpour fell into a trap of creating Margaret and her husband Robert as something like noble savages.

Margaret Garner attempts to address the historical figure of Margaret Garner in a dignified and meaningful way—as is only to be expected of Nobel Prize-winning Morrison. However, Danielpour, not unlike Puccini, uses musical references in irrelevant and anachronistic ways. For example, during the opera one hears (frequently) references in the orchestra’s music to jazz and ragtime; and when the black (and black-faced) chorus sings they evoke gospel music that you might hear pouring out of the Baptist churches in the South today. He has used familiar sounds to make his audience tap their feet and he weaves beautiful and jazzy melodies to tug at our heartstrings. Some critics have referred to Danielpour’s “Leonard-Bernstein-like” musical style, but his attempts are not as successful as Bernstein’s dizzying combinations of styles, and the result is that Margaret Garner is less effective as a dramatic opera than it could be.

Additionally, in his imitation of black American musics, Danielpour has orientalized Margaret and her family, rather than presenting them in more complicated musical language, which of course, Danielpour is capable of composing. Like Madame Butterfly, Margaret and Robert become simplified, overdrawn characters; they are held up as infallible in their love for one another and for their children, and they are made into saints and martyrs. By making Margaret a saint instead of a desperate human, Danielpour and Morrison do not do justice to the facts of Margaret Garner’s life, which, when examined on their own shed light on a slice of American history, even without dramatization.

One problem with creating saints out of real peoples’ lives is that though we can argue that this Margaret Garner of their creation—kind, loving, intelligent, and beautiful—did not deserve her fate, the opera does not make a strong stand about slavery in general. An opera that would truly look our history of slavery in the eye must protest the enslavement of even those people who were less virtuous than this Margaret; those who were not good parents or faithful lovers; those who may have been somehow complicit with the system of slavery in which they were raised. The house slave who may have enjoyed her status or the transplanted husband who was not faithful cannot measure up to the standard set by this martyred Margaret Garner. To be truly “anti-slavery” we must recognize that even slaves who stole, who abused the little power they had, who abandoned their lovers, or who were in other ways unable to measure up to Danielpour and Morrison’s standard were deserving of basic human rights of freedom and self-determination.

In another, more practical way, Margaret Garner strikes a blow against the institutional racism that plagues opera houses. We need only look at the hiring practices of the Metropolitan Opera (or the New York City Opera or any other major US or European opera house) to see that while men and women of color are often hired to sing roles designated as characters that are black, Hispanic or Asian, they are rarely hired to perform roles that are understood to be white characters; and furthermore, that white people are sometimes hired to sing roles that are designated as black, Hispanic, or Asian characters (think, for example on the famous singers who perform Otello, Monostatos, Madame Butterfly). For more thoughtful writing on hiring practices of the Met, see Wallace Cheatham’s article “Black Male Singers at the Metropolitan Opera” in The Black Perspective in Music 16/1 (Spring 1988): 3 – 20; which is almost as relevant today as it was twenty years ago. (Over his career Cheatham has also written about black women singers in opera.) Margaret Garner, in its subject matter and casting, perforce must address some of these issues. Three of the four NYCO debut artists in this cast are not white. In choosing to have both black and white characters in this opera about America’s history with slavery, it seems that Danielpour and Morrison have created new roles for black singers, roles that may help these singers further the careers of the artists who perform them, if they can avoid being typecast.

Tracie Luck thrilled the audience at the NYCO premiere of Margaret Garner, not only with her acting skills, but also with her beautiful voice and some surprising low notes. Other newcomers Lisa Daltrius as Cilla and and Gregg Baker as Robert Garner were also very talented and warmly received. Another notable performance was given by Maureen McKay who seemed to embody the perky and radical Caroline Gaines, daughter of the slave owner Edward Gaines (performed by NYCO debut artist Timothy Mix).

The set designed by Donald Eastman was functional; it did not distract from the action on the stage. This production offers the director the difficulty of having to stage five deaths—two of which are hangings. The first murder—that of the villainous overseer played by Joel Sorensen by Robert Garner—involved some very convincing stage acting by the two performers. Neither the hanging of Robert Garner or of Margaret Garner was pulled off very well. The scene that should have been at the heart of the opera—the one in which Margaret stabs her own children to death was convincingly acted, but musically and otherwise undramatic. Any of the angst that the real Margaret must have felt was glossed over briefly in one of the shortest scenes of the opera.

Although this opera was disappointing, one cannot help but feel it is in part because Margaret Garner is bearing so much social responsibility on its own. Few other operas tackle such huge and relevant issues. Perhaps if this opera were not one of so few that address race relations in the United States, then we as audience members would not have to scrutinize the message or the presentation so closely. If this were one of many approaches to healing the wounds that slavery has left in our country, then Margaret Garner would not have such a heavy burden to bear.

Megan Jenkins © 2007

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):