Toni Morrison brings “Margaret Garner” to City Opera


The big opera story in the news last week was the death of opera “rock star” Luciano Pavarotti. But there’s another opera story that’s been getting a little less international coverage: As part of a multifaceted approach to increasing and broadening the opera audience, the New York City Opera is performing Toni Morrison and Richard Danielpour‘s Margaret Garner this week.

Take a moment to envision the typical opera audience. I don’t know about you, but I’m seeing overwhelmingly white, including a fair number of gay men. (We do, of course, know from the movies that some lesbians swoon for Puccini and some hookers (with hearts of gold) get weepy at La Traviata.) But the powers that be at City Opera, which is already known as “the people’s opera” due to its relatively low ticket prices and emphasis on modern works, believe that the opera can be more things to more people. And to their credit, they’re not just philosophizing about the issue; last spring they hired the woman, Donna Walker-Kuhne, who literally wrote the book on marketing to multicultural audiences. See, here’s the actual book.

Walker-Kuhne, who is African-American and has worked for the Public Theater, the Dance Theater of Harlem, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, holds that it’s not ticket prices that keep African-Americans away from the opera:

“Rather … it’s being invited. It’s like anything else: You want to make sure it’s appropriate for you to be there. And the invitation is not an ad in The New York Times.”

She says that successful marketing to African-Americans happens within communities. A notice in a church bulletin or the recommendation from a friend will likely have more impact than an ad or a review. So she approached community leaders and ministers and did not lead with the “O” word, as she put it. And she made sure that community representatives became familiar with the content of the show.

Which brings us to the show.

Magaret Garner is based on the true story of the title character, a runaway slave who chose, upon capture, to kill her children to prevent their return to slavery. And rather than try her for murder, the slave owners tried her for the lesser crime of “destruction of property.”

Toni Morrison based her novel Beloved on Margaret Garner’s story and then, years later, wrote the libretto for the opera, which was originally co-commissioned by the Michigan Opera Theatre, the Cincinnati Opera Company and the Opera Company of Philadelphia. The opera is more true to the actual story than the novel was, but Morrison did change certain facts — the biggest difference being that in the opera, the title character kills herself rather than her child.

Although I’m more of a musical theater fan than an opera fan, I’m thinking of checking out this one. What about you? Would this show draw you to the opera?

Check out the City Opera website for additional information about the production.