Thursday, February 20, 2003

New opera to tell chilling story of slavery

Cincinnati Opera commissions 'Margaret Garner'

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Denyce Graves will sing the title role in the new opera, Margaret Garner.
Enquirer file

Margaret Garner was a desperate mother, a slave who escaped across the Ohio River to Cincinnati and decided to kill her child rather than see her return to slavery.

Cincinnati Opera, with Michigan Opera Theatre and Opera Company of Philadelphia, is commissioning Margaret Garner, a new opera based on the story that took place in Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati in the 1850s.

The project, to premiere in 2005, is the first work commissioned by Cincinnati Opera in its 83-year history. It will bring together Grammy-winning composer Richard Danielpour with best-selling author Toni Morrison, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature. Acclaimed mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves will sing the title role.

Margaret Garner is another opera to tackle a hot-button social issue. Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking, about capital punishment, had its Midwest premiere last summer at Cincinnati Opera.

Although opera subjects have been ripped from the headlines (Nixon in China, Harvey Milk and The Death of Klinghoffer) no other has come close to being "a contemporary lightning rod of political thought," says Marc Scorca, president of Opera America, a national organization based in Washington, D.C.

"The creation of new work is the absolute epitome for any arts organization," says Nicholas Muni, Cincinnati Opera artistic director. "The story itself - which took place on the banks of the Ohio River just a few blocks from Music Hall - combined with the (National Underground Railroad) Freedom Center opening, and the way America is still trying to find answers to the very difficult legacy that we have - will connect with some real relevance to our community."

Margaret Garner and its local connections:

Margaret Garner, her husband and their four children were fugitives from Maplewood Plantation in Richwood Station, Ky., 16 miles south of Covington. The 19th-century cookhouse where Garner worked still stands. The property is owned by George J. Budig of Cincinnati, who bought it from descendants of John P. Gaines. Garner was owned by Gaines, who sold her to his brother, Archibald K. Gaines, from whom she fled in January 1856.

The slaves escaped across the frozen Ohio River to Elijah Kite's house in Cincinnati, below Mill Creek Bridge, at Sixth Street. Kite enlisted the help of Levi Coffin, a Quaker and "president" of the Underground Railroad, who had a store at Sixth and Elm. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, to open in 2004, is blocks away.

As a posse hunted Garner, she vowed to kill her four children before she would allow them to be taken back into slavery in Kentucky. She cut the throat of her 3-year-old daughter, Mary, as the posse rushed in. (Her other children survived.) Toni Morrison based her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Beloved, on these facts. The details of her libretto to Margaret Garner, though, are quite different.

Garner lost her trial but was deemed too valuable a slave for execution. She was sent back to her master on the riverboat Henry Lewis. The steamer will play an important role in the opera.

Cincinnati painter Thomas Satterwhite Noble's depiction of Garner killing her child is in the Procter & Gamble Collection.

Part 1: Posse follows slaves across the Ohio
Part 2: Fugitive preferred death over slavery
Part 3: Lawyers appealed to a higher law
Part 4: Slaves' case ended in tragedy
It will have its world premiere in Detroit in May 2005, where David DiChiera, general director of Michigan Opera Theatre, initiated the project. Cincinnati Opera will premiere the opera in July 2005, in honor of the planned fall 2004 opening of the Freedom Center. Philadelphia will mount it in February 2006.

Cincinnati Opera's investment is projected to be more than $1 million, an early estimate of the cost to commission and mount a large-scale production with a big cast, two choruses and full orchestra. It will be funded as a capital project in the company's Festival Campaign, launched last year, with a goal to be announced this spring.

Margaret Garner, Scorca says, signals the "rebirth of Cincinnati Opera as a very important summer festival in the United States. This piece is so rooted in the history of this country that I think it will be a really important contribution to American opera, and to the Americanization of opera.

"Where the particular story has local resonance, it transforms the perception of opera in the eyes of people who attend - and even who don't attend - to realize that their story, their history, is being told in the opera house."

"This opera is not just about race. It has to do with the belief that we all belong to the same human family, and this is what happens when we, as a people, forget this," says Danielpour. "Obviously, the issue of slavery is a metaphor for so much more. While it was resolved as of 1865, the ripples and feelings that have surrounded it are anything but resolved."

Some of the opera's most powerful scenes will involve courtroom arguments on whether to try Garner for murder or destruction of property.

"If she were tried for murder, they would have to admit that she and her children were human and therefore free," Danielpour says. "If she were tried for destruction of property, her status as a slave would have remained intact." Garner was ordered back to slavery.

It is the first opera for Danielpour, 47, whose commissions read like a Who's Who of the world's greatest artists. He won a Grammy for the recent Sony album of his Cello Concerto, with Yo-Yo Ma and the Philadelphia Orchestra. He has written for opera superstars such as Jessye Norman, Frederica von Stade and Dawn Upshaw.He wrote Margaret Garner with Graves in mind, after seeing her perform at the Metropolitan Opera and realized, "This is my Margaret."

"One of the criteria, for me, was a story in which the idea of singing be the vehicle," he says. "Slaves in 19th-century America sang as a way of communicating with one another, sometimes in code so their masters would not understand. The shout songs, the work songs, the spirituals - there was a song for every action in the life of a slave."

His other criterion was finding a librettist who was "part poet and part visionary," he says. Morrison, who was born in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931, won the Nobel Prize in 1993. The 1998 film Beloved is based on her Pulitzer-winning novel of the same name, and starred Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover.

The initial spark occurred when Danielpour and Morrison met for lunch in 1996, while collaborating on a song cycle for soprano Jessye Norman. Each had "an idea for an opera."

Danielpour had come upon the story of Garner, who, in 1856, had run away to Cincinnati, was recaptured, and brought before a Cincinnati court. Morrison wanted to write her first libretto, based on historical material she had used, in part, for Beloved.

"It was serendipity. We were essentially pitching the same idea to each other," Danielpour says.

Margaret Garner's story has deep local ties, each of which is potent, says Cincinnati Opera's Muni. (He adds that the creators have taken some "theatrical license" with facts, which exist in conflicting accounts.)

But the story is significant, not just because it happened in Cincinnati, says Spencer R. Crew, executive director of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, but because it had "national implications that impacted activity on the Underground Railroad, and ultimately contributed to the ongoing national debate on the institution of slavery."

For Danielpour, his hope is that that Margaret Garner will be "a memorial in sound."

"It doesn't have to be in granite or stone," he says. "I would love to be able to erect this work with Ms. Morrison as that memorial that never was, and maybe needs to be."


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