Multiple award-winning composer Richard Danielpour and Nobel laureate, Pulitzer Prize-winner, and Princeton professor Toni Morrison have put their talents together to create "Margaret Garner," for each of them, their very first opera. Long-term collaborators, they have brought off their virgin foray into music drama with supreme professionalism and enduring good will.
Opera Company of Philadelphia, a co-commissioner of the work, brings "Margaret Garner" to Philadelphia’s Academy of Music for six performances only, Friday, February 10, to Sunday, February 26. Co-commissioned and co-produced with Michigan Opera Theater and Cincinnati Opera, the Philadelphia performances are the last stop in an initial chain of lauded presentations. Sung in English, the
performances have English supertitles.
The opera is based on a chilling set of events that took place in 1856, when American slaves were considered to be property. Slave Margaret Garner flees, with her family, from Kentucky to Ohio. With capture at hand, she attempts to kill her children and herself in order to avoid returning to a life of slavery. She is taken into custody before she can kill herself. In Ohio, a free state, she might have been tried for murder. Returned to Kentucky, she is tried for
destroying property and remanded back to slavery.
Mezzo soprano Denyce Graves sings the tragic title role. Baritone Gregg Baker is her husband, Robert, and soprano Angela Brown is Robert’s mother, Cilla. Baritone Rod Gilfry plays the part of Edward Gaines, owner of the plantation. Kenny Leon, director of Broadway’s recent "Raisin in the Sun," directs the opera. Stefan Lano conducts.
Danielpour, one of the most-recorded composers of his generation, won a Grammy for his cello concerto, recorded by Yo-Yo Ma and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and is on the faculties of the Curtis Institute in Philadephia and Manhattan School of Music in New York.
One frequent visitor to performances of the work says, "I’ve seen the opera five times, but I can’t get through it without tears. I knew it was a powerful story, but I’m always surprised at its emotional effect."
With Danielpour occupied by rehearsals in Philadelphia and Morrison recovering from dental surgery, the composer, nevertheless, manages to tuck in an early-morning telephone interview. When I ask him how he came to choose Margaret Garner as an opera subject, he produces what he calls the true answer. "I don’t know that artists really decide something like that the way people decide what they’re going to have for breakfast or lunch. It’s more that over a period of time you’re being pulled in a direction. I heard of the story in 1986 and kept it on the back burner of my mind."
Margaret Garner was simmering in Danielpour’s mind when cellist Yo-Yo Ma introduced him to Morrison in 1993 to work on one of his projects. Although Ma’s project never materialized, Morrison promised to be in touch with the composer. In 1995 she called, Danielpour remembers. Morrison proposed sending him some lyrics that he might want to set to music. "I offered to come to Princeton so she could read them to me," Danielpour says. The fruit of that encounter became "Sweet Talk," a song cycle for soprano Jessye Norman, which premiered in 1997 in
"Sweet Talk" surfaced in Princeton during the spring of 1996, when Danielpour held a residency at Morrison’s Princeton Atelier. Morrison organized the Princeton Atelier as an innovative creative enterprise with no definable boundaries. It embraces music, movement, literature, and drama.
After the Atelier, in the summer of 1996, Danielpour started researching Margaret Garner as an operatic subject. Returning from several weeks in Paris, he found a letter from Morrison asking for a lunch meeting to discuss an idea that she had. With a vivid sense of place and dialogue, Danielpour recounts the genesis of the collaboration that led to the opera.
"We met at Fiorello’s, across from Lincoln Center, and sat in one of those booths," Danielpour says. "Toni said, ‘I have idea for an opera.’ I said, ‘Me, too.’" Morrison explained that she was thinking of using a historical account that became the source material for her novel "Beloved," in which Sethe, the principal character, kills her eldest daughter and attempts to take the lives of her three other children. Danielpour countered, "’I’ve had a story in my back pocket for many years,’ and I told her about Margaret Garner." Morrison held
up her hands, Danielpour reports, and said, "That is the account." "We were pitching the same idea to each other."
"’But,’" I said, "’Beloved’ has nothing to do with Margaret Garner except for the murder of the children.’" And Toni said, ‘Well, that’s what we authors do. We rework material.’"
"We agreed that ‘Beloved’ would not make a good opera because it’s a psychological novel," Danielpour says. "We thought that Margaret Garner would be better because of its dilemmas." He quotes baritone Thomas Hampson: "Musical theater is about story telling; opera is about dilemmas."
"I believe what Hampson said." Danielpour says. "I’ve come to see in the last year of ‘Margaret Garner,’ now that I have the opportunity to take two steps back from the work, that this is true."
Danielpour’s decision to undertake the three-year project of writing the opera was unqualified because it met his criteria for the task. "First, I needed to make sure that we had an idea that was ideally suited to opera," he says. "Toni and I agreed that we didn’t want people going to the opera and asking why it wasn’t a film or a play. Then, I wanted a story where singing is a believable and viable part of the drama. The last thing I want people to ask is, ‘Why are these people singing?’ No problem. Singing was an integral part of the life
of enslaved people in 19th century America."
"Another criterion had to do with Toni," Danielpour continues. "I wanted language somewhere between poetry and prose. If it’s poetry, it sounds too stiff and formal. If it’s prose, the words make the actors sound silly. Toni’s writing is almost a third thing. That’s what she does naturally.
"Also, I wanted to deal with a subject where the musical language required would be natural to me," he says. "’Margaret Garner’ is a collection of various American vernaculars, different kinds of jazz, gospel, American folksongs, and rhythm and blues – what I draw from for my concert music. When I saw that all those things were right, I knew I had my own inner green light."
Danielpour and Morrison began work on the opera in earnest early in 1998. In March Danielpour met with soprano Denyce Graves, who enthusiastically joined the creative duo and persuaded Michigan Opera, Cincinnati Opera, and Opera Company of Philadelphia to commission "Margaret Garner."
Danielpour describes how Graves succumbed to Garner. "The way I work as a composer is that I hear the piece on some level before I really do it," he says. "If I see something in me, then I can do it. When I was talking to Denyce, I could see the opera. I said, ‘I’m going to write an opera in which you have the lead role, something where you will have music that you can sing for your entire career. You don’t have to stick to just ‘Carmen’ and ‘Samson and Dalilah.’" When
Danielpour told her the story, she was visibly moved, he reports. Then she said, "You tell me where to go, and I’ll be there."
"By 1999 we had completely fleshed out the treatment," Danielpour says. Morrison started working on the libretto in 2000, after the commissions were in place. "She had misgivings," he says. "She was not sure she could do it. I told her she had to do it and that nobody else could. Doubt is a phase of writing; it’s what writers go through. Composers, too."
Morrison chronicles her commitment to the project. "Having worked with Richard Danielpour on other projects at Princeton, I knew his passion equaled his intelligence and that his talent was overwhelming. Joining him in creating an opera was no small undertaking, but whatever reservations I had about this, my maiden voyage into writing libretto, were quickly overcome by my long-time disappointment with the treatment of language ascribed to African Americans. This powerfully evocative metaphorical language, so dominated by inflection, nuance, and rhythm leant itself almost seamlessly to music. The challenge and
sheer excitement of providing a composer of stature with the words from which the music could soar were irresistible."
‘I began setting the words at the end of January, 2002," Danielpour says. "Always, the words have to come first. They get edited, and changed. There are thousands of changes from the original drafts of the libretto and the music.
"The libretto is like the skeleton," Danielpour continues. "The music
is the muscle and the flesh. What’s remarkable about Toni is that when she wrote this, her first libretto, she was over age 70, and she understood right away. [Danielpour is Morrison’s junior by 20 years.] She understood that there had to be a sparseness and leanness about what she delivered to me, so that there would be room for the music. In her novels the music is in the writing. With the libretto it was 180 degrees opposite.
"The actual writing was hard work; it took focus," Danielpour says.
"But writing was the easiest part. The hardest part was dealing with all the people involved in putting on the opera. There were hundreds of people, in three different companies.
Danielpour assured that the artists appearing in "Margaret Garner" shared his devotion to the piece. "Conductor Stefan Lano was like an obstetrician for this work," he says.
Both composer and librettist see "Margaret Garner" as more significant than just a new opera. "Toni and I were struck by the fact that with all the war memorials in Washington, not one gives voice to the suffering that occurred at the hands of the institution of slavery," Danielpour says. "On some level we are trying to create that monument in sound.
"The most important thing I have to say," Danielpour concludes, "is
that we wanted to do ‘Margaret Garner’ because it’s a crucial story. To me this story speaks for what I believe is the greatest unhealed wound in our country’s history."
"Margaret Garner," a new opera by Richard Danielpour and Toni Morrison, six performances Friday through Sunday, February 10 through 26. Opera Company of Philadelphia, 1420 Locust Street, Philadelphia. Visit www.operaphilly.com or call 215-893-3600.