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

Pesaro’s Rossini Festival 2015

The 36th Rossini Opera Festival in Rossini’s Pesaro! La gazza ladra (1817), La gazzetta (1816) and L'inganno felice (1812) — the little opera that made Rossini famous.

Santa Fe: Placid Princess of Judea

Unlike the brush fire in a distant neighborhood of the John Crosby Theatre, Santa Fe Opera’s Salome stubbornly failed to ignite.

Airy and Bucolic Glimmerglass Flute

As part of a concerted effort to incorporate local color and resonance into its annual festival, Glimmerglass has re-imagined The Magic Flute in a transformative woodland setting.

Glimmerglass Conquers Cato

Bravura singing and vibrant instrumental playing were on ample display in Glimmerglass Festival’s riveting Cato in Utica.

Energetic Glimmerglass Candide

Bernstein’s Candide seems to have more performance versions than Tales of Hoffmann.

Die Eroberung von Mexico in Salzburg

That’s The Conquest of Mexico, an historical music drama composed in 1991 by German composer Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1952). But wait. Wolfgang Rihm construed a few sentences of Artaud’s La Conquête du Mexique (1932) mixed up with bits of Aztec chant and bits of poem(s) by Mexico’s Octavio Paz (d. 1998) to make a libretto.

Scottish Sensation at Glimmerglass

Glimmerglass is celebrating its 40th Festival season with a stylish new production of Verdi’s Macbeth.

Norma in Salzburg

This Salzburg Norma is not new news. This superb production was first seen at the Salzburg Festival’s springtime Whitsun Festival in 2013 with this same cast. It will now travel to a few major European cities.

The power of music: a young cast in a semi-stage account of Monteverdi’s first opera

John Eliot Gardiner conducted a much anticipated performance of Monteverdi’s first opera L’Orfeo at the BBC Proms on 4 August 2015, with his own Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists.

Cold Mountain Wows Audience at Santa Fe World Premiere

On August 1, 2015, Santa Fe Opera presented the world premiere of Cold Mountain, a brand new opera composed by Pulizer Prize and Grammy winner Jennifer Higdon.

Manon Lescaut, Munich

Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.

Proms Saturday Matinée 1

It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)

The Maid of Pskov (Pskovityanka) , St. Petersburg

I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.

Prom 11 — Grange Park Opera: Fiddler on the Roof

As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.

Saul, Glyndebourne

A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage

Roberta Invernizzi, Wigmore Hall

‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.

Montemezzi: L’amore dei tre Re

Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high. 

Prom 4: Andris Nelsons

The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.

BBC Proms: The Cardinall’s Musick

When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.

Oberon, Persephone and Iolanta at the Aix Festival

Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.

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):