Toni Morrison: A Teaching and Learning Resource Collection

"Margaret Garner" (2005): Overview and Links

Toni Morrison wrote the libretto (the text) of the opera Margaret Garner, which was first performed in 2005 in Detroit, and subsequently in Cincinnati and Philadelphia. The music was composed by an established American composer of Persian-Jewish descent named Richard Danielpour. In 2007, a documentary about the production of the opera by Mustapha Hasnaoui (sometimes spelled "Hasnawi") was released; it is now available on DVD. The documentary contains interviews with many of the star performers in the production, including Denyce Graves, Richard Danielpour, and Morrison herself. Readers are also recommended to consult the 2016 collection of essays on Margaret Garner edited by La Vinia Delois Jennings and published by University of Virginia Press. 

Full text online: The text of Morrison's libretto can be found here.

Background on Richard Danielpour. At the time he wrote Margaret Garner, Danielpour did not have a lot of experience with Black-themed projects, though some of his operas before Margaret Garner certainly had social themes (for instance, in 2001, he did An American Requiem, an homage to combat veterans and a reflection on the costs of war). He and Morrison had also collaborated earlier on two other operas, Sweet Talk (1997) and Spirits in the Well (1998). For those earlier operas, Morrison had written the text of some of the songs Danielpour used, not the complete librettos. She had written the text in part to support one of the great Black opera divas, Jessye Norman (who broke many barriers in the opera world for Black performers). 

Danielpour had been thinking about doing an opera version of Margaret Garner at least since the late 1990s, but it didn’t actually come to pass until 2005, when Margaret Garner premiered in Detroit before playing a run in Cincinnati. In 2006, the opera went on a brief tour; it played in Philadelphia for a limited run that year as well. In Hasnaoui's documentary, Danielpour indicates that he had Denyce Graves in mind to play Margaret Garner from the beginning. Denyce Graves had emerged as a star in the opera world in 1995, when she debuted in Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera House. She had largely performed in traditional European operas for major opera houses around the U.S. -- essentially, in parts written for characters who were presumably white. 

Summary of Margaret Garner

While Margaret Garner is closer to the historical narrative of the real life Margaret Garner than Beloved, Morrison and Danielpour's opera does diverge at several moments and should be thought of as a work of historically-inspired fiction. 

In the opera, a widowed slaveowner named Edward Gaines takes over the Maplewood plantation in Kentucky. He takes a sexual interest in an enslaved woman named Margaret Garner. His daughter, Caroline, is opposed to slavery, and their difference on this question becomes a source of tension that runs throughout the opera. 

Margaret Garner, her husband Robert, and their children escape from Maplewood and flee into Ohio. There they are hunted down by a posse led by Gaines. Margaret kills both of her children to avoid having them be re-enslaved. She is then tried for "destruction of property," and is sentenced to death. However, Gaines appears with a letter of commutation from the governor, aiming to spare Margaret's life and win back his good graces with his daughter. But Margaret, refusing to be re-enslaved, dies by suicide when she steps off the gallows on her own volition. 

African American stories in the Opera World

Opera is a whiter and more conservative culture than the world of fiction has been (or at least, than the world of fiction has become). The dominant form of opera is European -- and many operas continue to be performed in American opera houses in German, Italian and French. It has particular limitations and rules -- particular formal constraints -- that Morrison follows in her libretto. Still, in the interview included in Hasnaoui's documentary, Morrison stresses that she felt confident she could find a way to use the format to bring forward the language -- the voices and music -- of Black folks in this historical period.

There had certainly been some operas produced by major Opera Houses that were on Black themes before Margaret Garner. Some examples include Slipknot (2003), with a libretto by the African-American poet Yusef Komunyakaa, Amistad (1997), and York: The Voice of Freedom (2002); all were produced around this time. All three of the operas mentioned above dealt with historical themes: Slipknot deals with an early American lynching of a Black man because of an accusation of sexual assault against a white woman; York tells the story of the Black man who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their transcontinental expedition in 1803-6; and Amistad deals with the famous 1839 slave revolt that took place on a slave ship off the coast of Cuba. 

HBCUs also had a history of producing Black-themed operas. An opera by Oscar Brown, Jr. called Slave Song, for instance, was produced in 1972. John Duncan also wrote a one-act opera called Gideon and Eliza that was performed at Xavier University in Louisiana. 

Medea as Precedent 

While Black-themed operas have been rare in mainstream opera, interestingly, there is a significant precedent for the infanticide theme in the form of a famous French opera adaptation of the Greek tragedy Medea. Medea is about a princess who had two children by a king (Jason), who abandons her and is one the verge of marrying another woman. In desperation, Medea kills Jason’s new fiancĂ©e and then kills her two children. 

Medea is usually performed based on the Euripides version -- as a play, rather than an opera. However, the French opera version has been extremely popular at times; a version performed in the 1950s with the legendary opera singer Maria Callas became a runaway success.


Margaret Garner as opera

The essay by Michael Halliwell, "Turning Words into Music: Toni Morrison’s Libretto Margaret Garner and Its Musical Realization," in the Jennings anthology, walks us through the libretto of the opera with an attention to some of the technical elements. One important decision Morrison makes is to have the entire first act located at the Maplewood estate -- before the Garners' escape and before the recapture. The opera establishes Margaret’s care for her children; it also establishes Gaines (here, “Edward Gaines”) as a character. Interestingly, large sections of the story involve the white characters and their own personal plots. In Morrison’s libretto, Edward Gaines was sent away from the estate for some transgression when he was a young man, and has returned with some scores he wants to settle: we see him buying his brother’s slaves at auction in Act I. He also has a daughter named Caroline, who has sympathy for enslaved Black folks; Caroline causes a scandal at her engagement party when she publicly asks Margaret for her opinion on love. This event also causes tension between Caroline and her father; Caroline disapproves of her father’s owning slaves and of his particular treatment of the Garners.

Here is an arioso from Act 1, Scene I: 




I made a little play doll for my baby,
With button eyes and hair of yarn;
The lips are made of rose-colored thread.


(Distracted, Edward looks up from his paperwork; he turns around and
notices Margaret, who is wearing a red scarf. He is captivated, and grateful
for his good fortune to have just purchased her.)

One day she will love it;
I am waiting for her to love it


(Edward turns around again, and finishes signing the contract. The businessmen extend
handshakes of congratulations to him on the acquisition of Maplewood.)


When she is old enough to hold it.


(Margaret unties her red scarf. When one of the slaves brings in Margaret’s
infant daughter, wrapped in a white cloth, she drops her scarf on the ground
in order to cradle the baby tenderly in her arms.)


The focus on the doll here seems noteworthy given the attention to dolls in The Bluest Eye. To this reader, it's a way of humanizing Margaret Garner here, showing her aspirations for her child and her investment in that child's future growth.


And here a lullaby from Act I, Scene 2. 




Sad things, far away
Soft things, come and play

Lovely baby…

Sleep in the hay
Baby’s got a dreamin’ on the way.
Bad things, far away
Pretty things, here to stay
Sweet baby, smile at me
Lovely baby, go to sleep.
Sleep in the meadow, 
Sleep in the hay
Baby’s gonna dream the night away.
Lovely baby, pretty baby
Baby’s gonna dream the night away.
Sleep in the meadow
Sleep in the hay
Baby’s gonna dream…
Baby’s gonna dream…
Baby’s gonna dream… 

Again, there's a passionate emotional investment in the baby's future life here. Perhaps foreshadowing what is going to happen, the baby is not featured in the present tense, but as a person dreaming of the future. 

Here is a powerful aria from Act I, scene 3: 



(looking at the glass)

. . .

Only unharnessed hearts
Can survive a locked-down life.

Like a river rushing from the grip of its banks,
As light escapes the coldest star;
A quality love—the love of all loves—will break away.
When sorrow clouds the mind,
The spine grows strong;
No pretty words can soothe or cure
What heavy hands can break.
When sorrow is deep,
The secret soul keeps
Its weapon of choice: the love of all loves.

No pretty words can ease or cure
What heavy hands can do.
When sorrow is deep,
The secret soul keeps its quality love.

When sorrow is deep,
The secret soul keeps
Its weapon of choice: the love of all loves!

(act 1, scene 3)

At the end of the scene, there is a strong suggestion that Gaines is going to rape Margaret (aligning with historical evidence mentioned above) -- this gives a strong emotional motive for Margaret to escape (as she and her family do in Act 2). 

And here is a scene from near the end of the opera, in Edward Gaines’ voice. Here he is trying to decide what to do about Margaret’s case. Allow her to be hung for murder, or attempt to “rescue” her -- which would also entail bringing her back under his power. At the time he had come to reclaim her, she had thrown hot coals at him with her bare hands. Here he is astonished that the coals haven’t seemed to have left a physical mark, though his hands still have a burning sensation:  




(examining his hands)

Nothing. I see nothing at all.
No wound, no rash.
Yet they burn.
What lights the flame?
Is it Caroline’s kiss,
Or Margaret’s coals of fire?


(Edward steps forward a few feet—thereby “leaving” the courtroom—and moves to a dimly-lit area of the stage.)
(dismissing any questions of doubts from his mind)

Damn it to hell!
I am approved.
Clearly what the world insists
I should be.
Law and custom endorse me.
Yet my only child
Looks at me with strange eyes;
Cold appraisal where naked adoration
Used to live.
Am I not a legal man?
God’s blueprint,
Flawed in merely ordinary ways?
(assuming an aristocratic air)
Hats still tip,
Gentlewomen dip their heads courteously
To me.
And yet. And yet.
They sear like molten lead.
(inwardly, glancing at his hands)
(Look at them. Look at them!)
(upon reflection)
If the flaw is in the blueprint
Why must I choose?
If the flaw is in the blueprint—
Then I must choose.

(act 2, scene 3)


Again, we see that in the opera Morrison gives much more attention to the choices and interests of the white characters than we see in Beloved. Gaines is obviously a deeply flawed character, but he’s unaware of himself as a “villain”; he doesn’t understand why his hands have this intense burning sensation. 

In the opera, Edward is the one who secures the pardon that will keep Margaret from being hung for murder. He rushes in with the pardon document just as Margaret is standing at the gallows -- will it be a last-minute rescue?  But Margaret, seeing him and contemplating her fate, takes matters into her own hands and actually hangs herself rather than be delivered back into his control. 

It’s a powerful divergence from the historical record -- one that rhymes in some ways with the choices Morrison made in Beloved (but also diverges from those as well in some key ways). The climax here is the suicide after a trial -- not the event at the woodshed. 

Again, even with this version of the story -- closer in some ways to the historical reality -- Morrison makes a clear choice not to let Margaret Garner be brought back into bondage.



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