18 March 2006

Margaret Garner

Last spring I went to Detroit, land of (some of) my ancestors, for the world premiere of Margaret Garner (music by Richard Danielpour, libretto by Toni Morrison). Detroit is an interesting city, as in, I've never been to a major city where I could walk three miles down a main road on a Friday afternoon and come across maybe five people. At the end of that road was the Detroit Institute of Art, which is outstanding but was also being renovated while I was there, so I only got to see collection highlights. Their fabulously baroque baseball stadium is possibly my favorite, though I'd have to give a slight edge to the SF Giants based on location (I mean on the water, not just not in Detroit). I also went to the Detroit Symphony, which is in a beautiful old hall, to hear a program called "Three Fourths": the fourth symphonies of Mozart, Tippett, and Brahms, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth. The symphony is very good but the audience is depressing in its Philistine refusal to accept anything that isn't already familiar. I thought Neeme Jarvi had shaken them up a bit but Tippet's fourth symphony, which is about 35 years old, and though recognizably modern also recognizably in the symphonic tradition) was just too much for the audience. Ironically that meant they were more quiet, due to sleep, than during the Brahms Fourth, which was greeted with tuneless humming and much rustling through programs and many whispers of relief. I had the depressing feeling that the audience applauded the familiarity and not the beauty of Brahms, but that wasn't as depressing as the stale jokes I had to hear during intermission about the Tippett: oh, those crazy contemporary composers! Giving us stuff we don't know already! How can we listen to this?
On to Margaret Garner. I was there for the second-to-last performance. I think all the performances had been selling out, which is nice; apparently they usually have half-empty houses, but I was told that by a woman behind me who was running Detroit down at every opportunity, so I don't know how reliable she is. (She also thought that Toni Morrison had her own line of Hallmark cards, which I found an amusing notion, but of course she was confusing her with Maya Angelou.) It's very different from Beloved in that the novel is mostly about what happened after the killing and there's the richly ambiguous character of Beloved herself. Margaret Garner is a more linear narrative about events leading up to the murder, and then the trial and execution of Garner. Danielpour was in the audience the night I was there. I was tempted to ask him to sign the libretto I bought but I rarely quite have the nerve to approach such people and then he pulled out his cellphone (this was before the performance, obviously) so I didn't interrupt. I'm sure he would be gratified to know I flew in from California to hear the opera but perhaps less gratified to know that I thought of it as the Toni Morrison opera.
I thought the libretto was very well done, especially for a first effort from someone who's not a playwright but is used to the expansive subtlety of the novel. We're at a difficult historical stage for stories about slavery, since for most of us (never too sure about those hamlets in the South) there's no moral ambiguity: here are the good people and here are the bad people, which lends a certain lack of drama to the story, since what people accepted then as inevitable and just is too far wrong for us. But we're still dealing with the effects of slavery. People go to see operas about Russian serfs and Italian peasants; why not African-American slaves? Morrison did a good job in trying to present the ambiguities of the situation (the owner's concern for his social position and his relations with his radical daughter; the racial assumptions people made, and so forth), which is why I thought they ended the story at the logical place, which is not after the murder of the children but after the trial (for destruction of property, not murder) and Margaret's decision to end her life and refuse the last-minute clemency.
The opera ended up reminding me of Britten's Billy Budd because both deal with a basically good protagonist who is pushed into murder by a corrupt world; each has a jail-cell solo in which they move beyond the worldly view of their actions and into a strange place of almost supernatural power; and each chooses death. There were some choruses of the "How long, O Lord?" type that maybe could have been shortened, because to us it's too clear that the slaves are right -- we end up feeling smug about how we're sure we would have behaved differently, rather than reflecting on how we do similar things today.
I liked the music as well, though there were parts where it sounded sort of anachronistically jazzy -- I had heard and read some comparisons to Porgy & Bess, and I thought maybe they had just drawn on similar source material (or people just assumed all black operas would sound similar), but when I heard the opera I knew which passages they were talking about. It's hard to discuss the musicof new operas, since you learn melody by repetition and I've only heard this once, and in my head I have the greatest operatic hits of the last three centuries playing over and over from different recordings by great artists -- it's hard to stand up to that sort of thing.
Detroit went all out with the staging and especially the cast, which was outstanding (though poor Rod Gilfrey was still suffering from a bad cold; I had seen him about a month earlier in DC as a wonderful Papageno -- the guy has range). Gregg Baker and Denyce Graves have new signature roles, I think.

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