Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

David McVicar's Andrea Chénier returns to Covent Garden

Is Umberto’s Giordano’s Andrea Chenier a verismo opera? Certainly, he is often grouped with Mascagni, Cilea, Leoncavallo and Puccini as a representative of this ‘school’. And, the composer described his 1876 opera as a dramma de ambiente storico.

Glyndebourne presents Richard Jones's new staging of La damnation de Faust

Oratorio? Opera? Cantata? A debate about the genre to which Berlioz’s ‘dramatic legend’, La damnation de Faust, should be assigned could never be ‘resolved’.

Hampstead Garden Opera presents Partenope-on-sea

“Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside! I do like to be beside the sea!” And, it was off to the Victorian seaside that we went for Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of Handel’s Partenope - not so much for a stroll along the prom, rather for boisterous battles on the beach and skirmishes by the shore.

Henze's Phaedra: Linbury Theatre, ROH

A song of love and death, loss and renewal. Opera was born from the ambition of Renaissance humanists to recreate the oratorical and cathartic power of Greek tragedy, so it is no surprise that Greek myths have captivated composers of opera, past and present, offering as they do an opportunity to engage with the essential human questions in contexts removed from both the sacred and the mundane.

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II - a world premiere

Is it in any sense aspirational to imitate - or even to try to create something original - based on one of Stockhausen’s works? This was a question I tried to grapple with at the world premiere of Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II.

The BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music join forces for Handel's Israel in Egypt

The biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is the defining event of Jewish history. By contrast, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt has struggled to find its ‘identity’, hampered as it is by what might be termed the ‘Part 1 conundrum’, and the oratorio has not - despite its repute and the scholarly respect bestowed upon it - consistently or fully satisfied audiences, historic or modern.

Measha Brueggergosman: The Art of Song – Ravel to John Cage

A rather charming story recently appeared in the USA of a nine-year old boy who, at a concert given by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, let out a very audible “wow” at the end of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music. I mention this only because music – whether you are neurotypical or not – leads to people, of any age, expressing themselves in concerts relative to the extraordinary power of the music they hear. Measha Brueggergosman’s recital very much had the “wow” factor, and on many distinct levels.

World premiere of Cecilia McDowall's Da Vinci Requiem

The quincentennial of the death Leonardo da Vinci is one of the major events this year – though it doesn’t noticeably seem to be acknowledged in new music being written for this.

Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In 1982, while studying in Germany, I had the good fortune to see Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear sung in München by the original cast, which included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Júlia Várady and Helga Dernesch. A few years later, I heard it again in San Francisco, with Thomas Stewart in the title role. Despite the luxury casting, the harshly atonal music—filled with quarter-tones, long note rows, and thick chords—utterly baffled my twenty-something self.

Berlioz’s Requiem at the Concertgebouw – earthshakingly stupendous

It was high time the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra programmed Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts. They hadn’t performed it since 1989, and what better year to take it up again than in 2019, the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death?

Matthew Rose and Friends at Temple Church

I was very much looking forward to this concert at Temple Church, curated by bass Matthew Rose and designed to celebrate music for voice commissioned by the Michael Cuddigan Trust, not least because it offered the opportunity to listen again to compositions heard recently - some for the first time - in different settings, and to experience works discussed coming to fruition in performance.

Handel's Athalia: London Handel Festival

There seems little to connect the aesthetics of French neoclassical theatre of the late-seventeenth century and English oratorio of the early-eighteenth. But, in the early 1730s Handel produced several compositions based on Racine’s plays, chief among them his Israelite-oratorios, Esther (1732) and Athalia (1733).

Ravel’s L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth

Although this concert was devoted to a single composer, Ravel, I was initially a little surprised by how it had been programmed. Thematically, all the works had the essence of Spain running through them - but chronologically they didn’t logically follow on from each other.

Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place

Renaissance patronage was a phenomenon at once cultural, social, political and economic. Wealthy women played an important part in court culture and in religious and secular life. In particular, music, musical performances and publications offered a female ruler or aristocrat an important means of ‘self-fashioning’. Moreover, such women could exercise significant influence on the shaping of vernacular taste.

The Secrets of Heaven: The Orlando Consort at Wigmore Hall

Leonel Power, Bittering, Roy Henry [‘Henry Roi’?], John Pyamour, John Plummer, John Trouluffe, Walter Lambe: such names are not likely to be well-known to audiences but alongside the more familiar John Dunstaple, they were members of the generation of Englishmen during the Middle Ages whose compositions were greatly admired by their fellow musicians on the continent.

Manitoba Opera: The Barber of Seville

Manitoba Opera capped its season on a high note with its latest production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, sung in the key of goofiness that has inspired even a certain “pesky wabbit,” a.k.a. Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville.

Handel and the Rival Queens

From Leonardo vs. Michelangelo to Picasso vs. Matisse; from Mozart vs. Salieri to Reich v. Glass: whether it’s Maria Callas vs. Renata Tebaldi or Herbert von Karajan vs. Wilhelm Furtwängler, the history of culture is also a history of rivalries nurtured and reputations derided - more often by coteries and aficionados than by the artists themselves.

Britten's Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House

“Billy always attracted me, of course, the radiant young figure; I felt there was going to be quite an opportunity for writing nice dark music for Claggart; but I must admit that Vere, who has what seems to me the main moral problem of the whole work, round [him] the drama was going to centre.”

Cool beauty in Dutch National Opera’s Madama Butterfly

It is hard to imagine a more beautifully sung Cio-Cio-San than Elena Stikhina’s.

Kurt Weill’s Street Scene

Kurt Weill’s “American opera,” Street Scene debuted this past weekend in the Kay Theatre at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, with a diverse young cast comprised of students and alumni of the Maryland Opera Studio (MOS).

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):