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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

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