In January 1856, Margaret Garner—an enslaved woman on a Kentucky plantation—ran with members of her family to the free state of Ohio. As slave catchers attempted to capture the fugitives in Cincinnati, Garner cut the throat of her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter to prevent her return to slavery. Toni Morrison first imaginatively treated Margaret Garner’s infanticide in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved (1987). In 2004, it became the subject of her libretto Margaret Garner: Opera in Two Acts, a lyrical text designed to be paired with music and sung operatically. Grammy Award-winning composer Richard Danielpour had tapped Morrison to write the libretto for his opera Margaret Garner: A New American Opera, which world premiered in Detroit in 2005.
La Vinia Delois Jennings’s edited volume records key events, debates, and critical assessments of Morrison’s success with Garner’s story as a libretto. It also includes essays by individuals who played central roles in bringing the opera to the stage and recovering Garner’s story. The collection opens with a foreword by mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, for whom Danielpour composed the title role. The other contributors range from literary and opera scholars to specialists in American slavery studies and scholars of Toni Morrison’s oeuvre. Their essays position her libretto within the African-American operatic and libretto tradition, a tradition not fully known to performance scholars and heretofore unexamined.
In May 2018, the volume received the Toni Morrison Society Book Prize 2015-17 for the Best Edited Book on the work of the Nobel laureate. The award’s committee issued the following statement: “This is a truly original work and expands the conversation concerning Morrison’s political, aesthetic, moral, and ethical imperatives. The quality of the book’s editing is superb. Each essay is outstanding and provides the reader with multiple perspectives and critical lenses with which to read and view the text: historiography, narratology, music theory, trauma theory, the neo-slave narrative, and Black Atlantic Studies among other hermeneutical paradigms.”
“The combination in this volume of personal, historical, political, diasporic, and artistic responses to the origin and impact of the opera Margaret Garner is both original and captivating. It is an engaging read, a brilliant design—full of many informative and surprising connections. This is ‘thick description’ at its best, and our full appreciation of Toni Morrison’s libretto is all the better because of it. A must-read!” Carolyn Denard, Georgia College, Founder and Board Chair of the Toni Morrison Society.
“This study’s scope is impressive and engaging and opens a window not only on the genesis and development of the opera from a variety of standpoints but also on the politics of producing such a potentially ‘controversial’ piece on black history and black life in the United States. It is at once eclectic and single-minded, and offers insight not only into the underpinning of Margaret Garner but also into the sociocultural impact of high art.” Justine Tally, Universidad de La Laguna, Spain.
“An Insightful, amazing, and rich collection thorough in research and detail, which honors three brave and beautiful women—Margaret Garner, Toni Morrison, and Denyce Graves. Denyce Graves opens the book with courage, honesty, and truth. Thank you, La Vinia Delois Jennings.” Kenny Leon, world premiere director of Margaret Garner: A New American Opera and Tony Award-winning director of A Raisin in the Sun.
“Jennings’s Margaret Garner: The Premiere Performances of Toni Morrison’s Libretto offers a clear-eyed view of both historical and topical issues and is fascinating reading. It would be an invaluable tool in academic settings or to enrich and inform future performances of this powerful opera.” Janelle Gelfand, Classical Music Critic and Arts Writer, Cincinnati Enquirer.