Recently in Performances
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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.
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
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
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