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

MOZART 250: the year 1767

Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos … this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.

Monteverdi, Masters and Poets - Imitation and Emulation

‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’

Visionary Wagner - The Flying Dutchman, Finnish National Opera

An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.

Don Quichotte at Chicago Lyric

A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.

Written on Skin: Royal Opera House

800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.

Madama Butterfly at Staatsoper im Schiller Theater

It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.

It’s the end of the world as we know it: Hannigan & Rattle sing of Death

For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.

A Vocally Extravagant Saturday Night with Berliner Philharmoniker

One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.

Les Troyens at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.

Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock

The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.

A Christmas Festival: La Nuova Musica at St John's Smith Square

Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.

Fleming's Farewell to London: Der Rosenkavalier at the ROH

As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.

Loft Opera’s Macbeth: Go for the Singing, Not the Experience

Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!

A clipped Walküre in Amsterdam

Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.

A Leonard Bernstein Delight

When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.

An English Winter Journey

Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.

History Repeating Itself: Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko, Amsterdam Concertgebouw

A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.

L’amour de loin at the Metropolitan Opera

Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.

La finta giardiniera at the Royal College of Music

For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.

Lust for Revenge: Barenboim and Herlitzius fire up Strauss’s Elektra in Berlin

As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.

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):