Opera Tells Saga of 'Margaret Garner' In January 1856, fugitive slave Margaret Garner killed her infant daughter with a butcher knife rather than see her returned to bondage. Toni Morrison turned the story into the novel Beloved, and has now written an opera, Margaret Garner, which debuts Saturday. Detroit Public Radio's Celeste Headlee reports.

Opera Tells Saga of 'Margaret Garner'

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In January of 1856, Margaret Garner and her husband fled the Kentucky farm where they were slaves. They took their four children across a frozen river toward safety in Ohio, a non-slaveholding state. But when they were discovered and captured, Margaret killed her two-year-old daughter with a butcher knife rather than see her returned to slavery. This story once galvanized the nation, and is now the subject of an opera that has its world premiere tonight. Detroit Public Radio's Celeste Headlee reports.


When people heard the story of Margaret Garner in the 1850s, many of them asked themselves, `How could she do it?'

Ms. RUTH BRUNINGS (Tour Guide, Maplewood Farm): Margaret's stated reason during the trial when she was asked why she fled--she said, `For freedom.'

HEADLEE: Ruth Brunings is leading a tour through Maplewood Farm in northern Kentucky where Garner once worked as a house slave. Brunings' own family were neighbors at the time. She says after their escape, Margaret Garner and her family were discovered at a home in Ohio. Margaret cried out that she'd rather kill her children than let them live as slaves. She seized a knife from the table and cut her daughter's throat. She tried to kill herself and the other three children as well, but was overpowered and taken to jail. This story is the basis of the novel "Beloved," by Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison. Morrison says Garner's act was unforgivable, but her motivation was understandable.

Ms. TONI MORRISON (Author, "Beloved"): Slaves had no rights over their children. They could never be parents. They could reproduce, but they could never be parents. She insisted that she parent, and that for her was freedom.

HEADLEE: Garner's trial became the subject of intense and passionate debate in the US, even inciting street fights. The country was already heading toward civil war, and Kentucky was bitterly divided over the issue of slavery. Abolitionists wanted Garner to be tried for murder. Slave owners insisted she be charged with destruction of property. Garner was eventually remanded back to slavery and sold to a plantation in Mississippi, where she died of typhoid fever. Morrison says the story stayed with her even after she finished the novel "Beloved." She decided the tale needed a new setting.

Ms. MORRISON: The story of Margaret Garner seemed to need that kind of breadth and depth. It needed to be accompanied by music and gesture, and it needed the opera.

(Soundbite of "Margaret Garner")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Put my face to the dying soil...

Chorus: (Singing) Put my face to the dying soil...

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) ...and swing my back until the work is done.

Chorus: (Singing) ...and swing my back until the work is done.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Glory be to the ...(unintelligible).

Chorus: (Singing) Glory be to the ...(unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Going to dance on the ...(unintelligible).

Chorus: (Singing) Going to dance on the ...(unintelligible). Go, brother. Go, brother.

HEADLEE: Morrison has never written an opera, but she has written lyrics for a number of songs. She asked her former collaborator and Grammy Award-winning composer Richard Danielpour if he'd write the music. The project gained even more momentum when acclaimed mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves agreed to play the title role. Danielpour says he's excited to tackle a subject so complex, so emotionally charged and so controversial.

Mr. RICHARD DANIELPOUR (Composer): What we were dealing with was addressing arguably the most important unhealed wound in our nation's history. This is a subject that makes Afro-Americans uncomfortable, and it also makes white Americans uncomfortable--which is exactly why we should be doing it.

(Soundbite of "Margaret Garner")

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Dear Lord in the heavens.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) Mercy, Lord.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible).

Unidentified Woman #2 and Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Sweet Jesus.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) You conceal it in your side.

Unidentified Woman #2 and Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Sweet...

HEADLEE: Danielpour and Morrison chose to write a story that's closer to the historical account than the novel "Beloved" was, but they admit they took a lot of liberties with the facts.

Mr. DANIELPOUR: There are so many accounts about Margaret Garner, so many conflicting accounts within the historical context itself, that to try to be faithful to any one of these historical accounts would be ridiculous. We would drive ourselves crazy.

HEADLEE: There are some who are concerned the opera will be taken out of its historical context. Margaret's owner when she was escaped was Archibald Gaines. There's some evidence that Gaines sexually abused her and that he was, in fact, the father of three of her children. But John Gaines, the slave owner's great-great-great-nephew, says it's not fair to portray his ancestor as a monster.

Mr. JOHN GAINES (Descendent of Archibald Gaines): Kind of hard to like a guy who owned slaves. At the same time, it was a fact of life back then. It's the same as, you know, driving on the right hand of the road. It's just something you do every day. You don't even think about it.

HEADLEE: Ruth Brunings says Margaret's desperate act doesn't prove her master was vicious or cruel. She thinks Garner may have felt guilty because she was involved in an adulterous relationship with her owner.

Ms. BRUNINGS: She certainly was capable of violence, as we know--you know, when she killed Mary with a butcher knife. She--there were times when she took things in her own hands, didn't she?

HEADLEE: Anthropologist Delores Walters works at the Northern Kentucky University Institute for Freedom Studies. She says it's highly doubtful that Margaret viewed her relationship with Archibald Gaines as adultery.

Ms. DELORES WALTERS (Anthropologist, Northern Kentucky University Institute for Freedom Studies): Women were constantly under the threat of sexual violence in the households that they were enslaved in--especially if her child was seen as very beautiful, almost white--there's, I think, something to be said there about why Margaret killed her child, as well--to prevent her from experiencing what she had to endure.

(Soundbite of "Margaret Garner")

Chorus: (Singing) Go, go, go, go, go, go. Go, go, go, go, go, go. Go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go.

Unidentified Woman #3: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible) liberty.

Chorus: (Singing) Go, go, go. Go, go, go, go.

Unidentified Woman #3: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible).

Chorus: (Singing) Go, go, go. Go, go, go, go, go.

HEADLEE: Toni Morrison says the opera doesn't shy away from these difficult issues. It begins with the sound of a chorus--many voices praying together. The prayer evolves into an angry shout and then a plea. That's when the lights come up and the audience sees the chorus is a group of blacks standing on an auction block about to be sold. But Morrison says the emphasis is not on the specific facts of 19th-century slavery, but on what happens when one human subjugates another.

Ms. MORRISON: In a distorted, outrageous system, the effort to love and to be free itself becomes distorted and outrageous. So my line for her has always been it may have been the right thing to do, but she had no right to do it.

HEADLEE: Three opera companies--the Michigan Opera Theatre, the Cincinnati Opera and the Opera Company of Philadelphia--co-commissioned the work. "Margaret Garner" premiers tonight at the Detroit Opera House. It plays at the Michigan Opera Theater through the 22nd and then moves to Cincinnati in July. For NPR News, I'm Celeste Headlee in Detroit.

(Soundbite of "Margaret Garner")

WERTHEIMER: You can listen to past interviews with Toni Morrison and Denyce Graves at our Web site, npr.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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