Sunday, April 23, 2006

margaret garner

Yesterday I did something today that I very rarely do. I went to the opera. Opera Carolina in Charlotte produced the southern premier of Margaret Garner, an opera written by Toni Morrison and loosely related to the character in her novel, Beloved. The plot is based on a slave narrative, and takes an historical event, the news account of Margaret Garner's life, as an imaginative jumping off place, in the words of Morrison.

There are a number of themes at work in the opera. Margaret Garner is a wife and mother. She sees his husband killed, after they have escaped (briefly) to freedom; she then kills her two children, because she does not want them to grow up as slaves; she is then tried for destruction of property, rather than murder. A prominent question in the opera is whether a slave is property or human, whether slaves can know the meaning or "quality" of love. The slave owner, Edward Gaines, struggles with his more progressive daughter about this question. She challenges his perspective, and in the end he intervenes to gain clemency for Margaret, although she would still be in his custody, but Margaret finally chooses death as the way to freedom and hangs herself.

I had been a member of an advisory group that had sought ways to involve the community in this opera. One piece of that was a lecture earlier in the week by Toni Morrison, the Nobel Laureate. She was an engaging speaker, as you might imagine. She read poetry and verse from spirituals, and reflected on the writing of Beloved and Margaret Garner (she is quite clear that the two are not the same). The opera clearly helped our community to reflect on this shared history that is our burden, and those in attendance today reflected a wide cross-section of the community. Slavery continues to exist in our world; wives and young girls are separated from their families (as Nicholas Kristof has reported on so vividly); race in America remains our unhealed wound. These thoughts stayed with me as I left the opera, and yet I was grateful for the vocations of artists whose visions recover narratives long forgotten by many of us, and illumine, in disturbing ways, something of our present struggles.


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