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A Story Worth Retelling

Toni Morrison and Opera Carolina revisit Margaret Garner



Oprah Winfrey didn't discover Toni Morrison. But the big O fanfare did allow Morrison to engage a new television-viewing audience with her stories about forgotten ghosts of history. And with Opera Carolina's production this month of Margaret Garner -- starring Metropolitan Opera's Denyce Graves -- the novelist has yet another chance to tell a tale that has been haunting her for decades.

In her Pulitzer-winning book Beloved, Morrison's character Sethe was inspired by a fugitive slave who, moments from capture, slit the throat of her young daughter in an attempt to deliver her from a brutal life of enslavement. Within a narrative imbued with supernatural emotion, Morrison conceived Sethe as a woman who was once fortified by past hardships but became vitiated by the trauma of her memory.

For her second incantation of the story, Morrison wrote the opera's libretto, tightly focused on the central tragedy of Margaret Garner's story. While Sethe was tormented by the moral uncertainty of her act, Margaret is cast in the opera much as her real-life counterpart was. During her landmark 1856 trial (for fleeing slavery), abolitionists painted Garner as an icon of motherhood who desperately martyred her child and sacrificed her own freedom.

The static depiction of Garner doesn't allow for the richness of character or nuance of emotion apparent in Morrison's prose. But even with limitations on structure and space, Morrison manages, as in Beloved, to echo indelible historic vernacular in the words she creates for her characters. The plodding cadence of choruses written for the slaves will be further instilled with emotion by Grammy Award-winning composer Richard Danielpour's score, which incorporates the beats and rhythms of jazz and spirituals. Whatever form they take, Morrison's words are to be savored.

Toni Morrison will be speaking Wednesday, April 19, and performances of Margaret Garner run April 20, 22-23. Tickets are available for both events at the Belk by calling 704-372-1000. Visit www.opera for more details.

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