(August 7, 2019). Few people – male or female – have captured the African experience in America through their art better than the late Toni Morrison.
And certainly even fewer musicians have done so.
So when I heard that the great novelist, essayist and educator Morrison, 88, had passed away on Monday, August 5, my first thought was how great a loss America had just experienced.
Then I wondered how would a music blog such as this pay tribute to someone so important to the black experience, but whose contributions to music in particular were not a major part of her story.
I remembered the ghost novel Beloved, her 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning fictional work inspired by a non-fictional black slave girl named Margaret Garner. And then I recalled the movie adaptation starring Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover and Kimberly Elise, which came out eleven years later (but bombed at the box office).
Neither the book nor its film adaptation would be entry points for a music blogger’s tribute here. But the character around which both were centered provided the key.
Beloved’s protagonist (and post-Civil War former slave) “Sethe” was inspired by Margaret Garner, an actual runaway slave whose life’s events would be loosely depicted in an opera named for her and composed by Richard Danielpour in the early 2000s.
The opera’s librettist was none other than Toni Morrison, who penned the English-language “script” for Margaret Garner that served as the work’s foundation.
This opera was noteworthy in that it was yet another major accomplishment for Morrison on top of everything else she’d already done in the literary and educational fields. That she had collaborated with a white Jewish man for a work so rooted in black slavery culture was not a lost irony, either.
The opera stage was previously uncharted territory for the author, but it was also one of few operas in history that captured the African-American experience (whether about slavery times or otherwise). Porgy and Bess comes to mind as a noteworthy other example.
It would also be the only operatic work for either Morrison or musical composer Danielpour, who was 25 years Toni’s junior when the two collaborated. The younger Danielpour recognized his cultural differences with Morrison and was anxious about his first opera, even to the point of hounding his Nobel Prize-winning librettist, who had yet to turn in the final scenes. She reportedly admonished to her composer, “Good things take time, you have to wait.”
When she finally did send him the finished manuscript in October 2002, Danielpour said of Toni’s libretto that it brought him to tears and that it was “exactly right” for what he was trying to do musically, while Morrison was reported to have called it “the hardest work I’ve ever done.”
Indeed, Margaret Garner was a tragic figure in the opera, a fugitive slave who went on trial for killing her own child – also a slave – to prevent the child from going back into slavery once the runaway family had been captured by their owner’s posse.
Morrison’s central theme in the libretto was whether Garner would be tried for “destruction of property,” as the Kentucky townspeople would have it, or as a murderer, as Garner herself preferred for killing her own child.
After all, her children were human, even if they were still property as slaves in the middle 19th century.
That was the kind of progressive thinking the outspoken Morrison championed for our people throughout her life. It was an unending cause that guided her life’s work right up to the very end.
Margaret Garner was commissioned by three opera companies (the Michigan Opera Theatre, Cincinnati Opera and Opera Philadelphia). It premiered at the Detroit Opera House in May 2005, in Cincinnati that July, and in Philly the following February. Denyce Graves sang the title parts during the premier runs. The opera later played in Charlotte, NC, in New York and Chicago.
We likely won’t get to see Margaret Garner in a town near us anytime soon, as it reportedly last went into production more than a decade ago.
But here’s a glimpse of it in a YouTube clip, both in tribute to Toni Morrison and with the hopes that someday a production company will see fit to resurrect what must have been a great piece of art, among the many that form Morrison’s undying legacy.
R.I.P. Toni Morrison (February 18, 1931 – August 5, 2019).
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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Major reference for this article: “Singing the Lament of a Fugitive Slave,” a New York Times review of Margaret Garner by Matthew Gurewitsch (September 2, 2007).