In 1856 a woman killed her 2-year-old daughter with a butcher knife rather than see her child return to a life of slavery. This is the story of Margaret Garner. Certainly a controversial story from pre-Civil War America, Garner’s struggle was the inspiration for Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning “Beloved, ” later turned into a film starring Oprah Winfrey. In 2005 Morrison, along with composer Richard Danielpour, saw the birth of the opera “Margaret Garner”; and now, 2008 brings the grand opera back to Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre.
“This story is an African-American story, yes it is, but it is also an American story,” says Brett Batterson, executive director of the Auditorium. Batterson has been involved with “Margaret Garner” for some time. He worked at Michigan Opera Theatre, the company that originally commissioned the work and co-presents the Chicago engagement, when the work was being developed. He is thrilled to have the opera on the stage of his new home.
“It is important that people come see this,” says Batterson, “it is a wonderful piece of American opera. It is new and accessible.”
Kenny Leon, director of the recent Broadway revival of “Raisin in the Sun,” helms this production. He too has been with the opera since its beginnings. Leon hopes that Chicago audiences will get enthused about the opera and bring the entire family. Above all he feels it is a love story about a family.
Both Batterson and Leon say that this work has the ability to reach beyond the traditional opera crowd to a broader audience that may be intimidated by the idea of opera. Batterson believes it is a great vehicle to introduce members of the community to the art form. Musically Leon feels the work comes from a place listeners might expect from opera while embracing the sounds of more modern genres. “It encompasses many musical tastes but sits in the bed of classical music.”
Although the Auditorium was originally built for opera and classical music, “Margaret Garner” will mark the first time since 1941 an opera of this scale has been presented on its stage. With more than 150 artists, this promises to be grand on the scale of Lyric Opera of Chicago. With the community’s support, Leon hopes it will transcend being a musical experience and become an opportunity to grow. “Through the course of the evening you will learn something about our past, our present and our future.” (William Scott)
“Margaret Garner” runs November 1-9 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Parkway, (312)902-1500.