Singing the Lament of a Fugitive Slave

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IN the fall of 2002 the composer Richard Danielpour was in residence at the American Academy in Berlin, orchestrating the first act of his first opera, “Margaret Garner” but still awaiting the words for the final scenes. For weeks, in calls to Princeton, N.J., he had been hounding his librettist, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison, who would answer quietly: “Good things take time. You have to wait.”

Finally, in late October, the fax machine began disgorging pages. Mr. Danielpour scooped them up, drove to the palatial Hotel Adlon Kempinski, ordered lunch, began reading and soon found himself in tears. As he told the story the other day in Manhattan, where “Margaret Garner” was in rehearsal for its local premiere, at the New York City Opera on Sept. 11, a waiter noticed that Mr. Danielpour had stopped eating. “Excuse me, sir,” the waiter said, “is anything wrong with your risotto?”

In her time Margaret Garner was a cause célèbre. In 1867, within a decade of her death, the painter Thomas Satterwhite Noble called her “the modern Medea.” The analogy is at best approximate. The barbarian princess of mythology, abandoned by her Greek husband, kills her children for revenge. Garner, a runaway slave from Kentucky, cut a daughter’s throat rather than see her sent back into slavery. Had a posse of slave hunters in Ohio not prevented her, she probably would have killed her other children and herself as well.

Hers was reportedly the longest fugitive-slave trial of the mid-19th century. It hinged on whether she should be judged as a human being, capable of knowing right from wrong, or treated as property, a thing. In the opera the court must rule whether her crime is murder or theft, in the sense of destruction of property.

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