Singing to be free, opera as a political act

By |2017-10-31T06:43:16-04:00October 31st, 2017|Uncategorized|

DETROIT – For many Americans who do not identify as opera buffs, which is undoubtedly a significant majority, Grand Opera can conjure up images of long, unintelligible singing in a foreign language about a confusing story that has no relevance to our daily lives. But opera is, in fact, the most politically inspired musical genre. Many were written not for the rich patron class, but for the general public to hear and respond to hot political topics of the day.
Michigan Opera Theatre’s premier of “Margaret Garner,” a new opera commissioned by MOT, follows in that tradition of opera as a political act. “Margaret Garner” tells the story of a deeply American tragedy, inspired by the true story of an enslaved woman’s quest for freedom. In 1856, when Garner was a slave on a plantation in Kentucky, she escaped with her husband and four children and headed north towards freedom. But when the family was soon recaptured in southern Ohio, Garner made the horrific decision to sacrifice her children rather than see them returned to the bonds of slavery. Garner’s desperate act and her subsequent trial became one of the most significant and controversial fugitive slave stories in pre-Civil War America.
The world premier of “Margaret Garner” at the Detroit Opera House this week is one of the most anticipated events in the music world this year. The operatic debut is the artistic collaboration of Grammy award-winning composer Richard Danielpour and librettist Toni Morrison, celebrated novelist and winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature. The opera tells the same story that Morrison chronicled in her breathtaking novel “Beloved.”
Danielpour went to gospel music and African musical traditions practiced by American slaves to create his music for the black performers. But the score calls for there to be two segregated choruses – one black and one white. Much of the music sung by the white chorus is based more on European musical traditions. It was the first time in the history of the critically acclaimed MOT chorus that they were forced to split up according to their race in rehearsals, an unnerving experience for many of the singers.
The all-star cast of “Margaret Garner” brings some of the brightest luminaries in the singing world to Detroit. Denyce Graves, who stars as Margaret Garner, was recently described in the Washington Times as “the most significant mezzo of this generation.” Gregg Baker sings the role of Robert Garner, Margaret’s husband, and he has been dazzling the operatic world with his rich baritone and imposing stature.
The director, Kenny Leon, is making his operatic debut with “Margaret Garner.” He recently made a spectacular Broadway debut directing the revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.” Critics are anticipating that his theatrical instincts and proven emotional power will only enhance the inherent tragic drama of the “Margaret Garner” story.
The opera opens with strange sounds from the darkness. It is confusing, unsettling, and not familiar. Only when the lights come up do we learn that we are watching slaves being auctioned, people being torn from their families and human worth measured in wicked bidding.
The plot moves through Garner’s escape and capture. After she murders her daughter by slitting her throat, she tries to kill her other three children and herself but is overpowered before she can do it. She is then charged, not with murder, but with destruction of property because slaves were considered merely chattel property, not real human beings. That horrible part of the story polarized the American debate over slavery in the 1850s. In today’s light it dramatizes and reminds us just how depraved racism can manifest itself if left unchallenged.
The story deals head on with the American legacy of slavery, one that needs to be understood as an important part of our collective history – a part that still impacts race relations, economic justice, education, and governmental policies in the 21st century. “Margaret Garner” is full of the drama, the pain and the excruciating injustice of slavery. It is a great accomplishment of the part of MOT, and a wonderful fulfillment of MOT’s goal of being a vibrant musical influence in Detroit, the country and the world that they have spearheaded the creation of “Margaret Garner.”
Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” raised issues of 19th century colonization, racial and sexual politics. Mozart felt the wrath of his patron, King Leopold II, because his opera “The Magic Flute” featured Masonic traditions that the royal family sought to suppress. Verdi’s operas resonated politically with their patriotic themes at a time when Italy was struggling to unite itself in the 1850-60 era. And Wagner gave voice to rising nationalism in Germany.
“Margaret Garner” seems destined to become a great American opera that challenges ordinary Americans to respond on a human, emotional level to the crime of slavery. The great tragic drama of American slavery will be on full display, calling on all the power that opera composers and librettists have used for centuries.
MOT led a coalition of co-commissioning companies that includes the Cincinnati Opera and the Opera Company Of Philadelphia. “Margaret Garner” debuted May 7 and will be performed again May 11, May 14, May 20 and May 22. It then moves to Cincinnati for three performances in July, and then to Philadelphia next February for six performances.

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