A Mother's Desperate Act: 'Margaret Garner' Toni Morrison wrote the libretto for this opera, based on a real-life story about an enslaved woman who killed her daughter rather than let her be returned to slavery.

A Mother's Desperate Act: 'Margaret Garner'

From Opera Carolina

Hear Act One Of Margaret Garner

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Margaret Garner (Denyce Graves) and her husband Robert (Eric Greene) support each other through their hardships. Jim Schmid/Opera Carolina hide caption

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Jim Schmid/Opera Carolina

Margaret Garner (Denyce Graves) and her husband Robert (Eric Greene) support each other through their hardships.

Jim Schmid/Opera Carolina

Toni Morrison Speaks

The Story and Slavery

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The Character of Margaret Garner

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The African-American Opera Experience

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The Language in 'Margaret Garner'

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Richard Danielpour Speaks

Choosing Margaret Garner's Story

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Themes in 'Margaret Garner'

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In pre-Civil War America, few slave stories were more compelling than Margaret Garner's. She and her family were owned by a Kentucky plantation farmer, but one night they escaped to Ohio with another group of slaves.

Their hiding place was discovered, and Margaret's family was surrounded. She swore she would kill her children and herself rather than return to slavery. As her husband was dragged off, Margaret plunged a knife into her daughter. She was preparing to kill her other daughter and herself when she was seized and jailed.

Margaret was put on trial. Abolitionists wanted her tried for murder, which would have set a number of precedents, including establishing an enslaved person's rights and responsibility regarding her own children. Instead, Margaret Garner was accused of destruction of property, and sent back into slavery, along with her husband.

Her story advanced the rift between the abolitionists and the defenders of slavery, a rift that would soon help lead to the Civil War.

Grammy Award-winning composer Richard Danielpour and Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison collaborated to bring this true life story to the operatic stage. Margaret Garner was co-commissioned by opera companies in Detroit, Cincinnati and Philadelphia and made its debut in May 2005 at Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit.

Toni Morrison had already told a version of Margaret Garner's story in her best-selling novel Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. She says it's not a story about race. It's more about the internal struggles that result from the institution of slavery.

"The interest is not the fact of slavery, but of what happens internally, emotionally, psychologically, when you are in fact enslaved and what you do you do to try to transcend that circumstance. And that really is what Margaret Garner reveals," Morrison says.

Composer Richard Danielpour and author Toni Morrison collaborated on Margaret Garner. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders hide caption

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Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Margaret Garner is Richard Danielpour's first opera. The story, he says, is one that both touches him personally and resonates from the past into the present.

More than anything else, Margaret Garner is an opera that reminds us that we all belong to the same human family, and it demonstrates what can happen when we forget this fundamental truth, says Danielpour. While slavery has been outlawed in the United States since 1865, its lingering effects have proven that issues concerning race, class, and the true meaning of freedom are in no way resolved in our country.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us a production from Opera Carolina, based in Charlotte, N.C., starring American mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves in the title role.

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Read Toni Morrison's libretto to 'Margaret Garner.'