Sunday, September 21, 2003

New opera captures slave's plight

Cincinnati artists privy to preview

Cincinnati Opera staff had a sneak preview last month of Margaret Garner, the opera by Grammy-winning composer Richard Danielpour and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, that the company is co-commissioning.

Act I was presented amid great secrecy in a workshop in Smyrna Beach, Fla., in August. A young cast, including several singers with local ties, performed the first draft for the authors, producers and interested parties from the three commissioning companies (Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Detroit).

"The overall impression of the piece is that the music is unusually beautiful and sensuous," says Nicholas Muni, Cincinnati Opera artistic director. "It also struck me as a very, very moving story. Margaret's plight is deeply affecting."

Morrison has completed a draft of the libretto - the heart-wrenching, true tale of Margaret Garner, a Kentucky slave who escaped across the Ohio River to Cincinnati, only to kill her daughter when the family was discovered, rather than have her return to slavery. The landmark trial that ensued posed a now-inconceivable question: Should Garner be tried for murder, which would acknowledge that slaves were human, or destruction of property?

In the workshop, baritone Michael Mayes, a University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music grad and former Cincinnati Opera Young Artist, performed the role of Edward Gaines, the master of Maplewood Plantation where Garner lived.

Angela Brown, who had a small role in Cincinnati Opera's Elektra, was also in the cast.

Stakeholders are taking a lively interest, not only for the compelling subject matter - but also for the production's estimated $4.8 million price tag.

The July 2005 performance by Cincinnati Opera will hail the planned opening of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Its world premiere will be in May 2005 in Detroit, and it will continue in February 2006 in Philadelphia.

The entire opera will be previewed in another workshop in August.

A musical installation

The Arc Ensemble is the new "ensemble-in-residence" at the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art.

"I thought since our mission is contemporary music, it would be a perfect match-up," says Demetrius Fuller, music director of the chamber group.

The ensemble will present five concerts this season in the center's Black Box Theatre, and will participate in special events coordinated to the exhibits, Fuller says.

Since founding Arc four years ago while a conducting student at UC, Fuller's mission has been "to play music written after 1900."

"I just think it's important for younger generations, myself included, to know what's out there, in terms of classical music," says Fuller, who is 26. "It's not just the symphony."

He plans to program music from Copland to "music by a CCM composer that was written last week. ... We want to show people that contemporary music isn't people banging on things."

The Arc Ensemble's first concert is Oct. 10. (See sidebar).

For chamber music lovers

Cincinnati Chamber Music Society has designed a wonderful new calendar. Its monthly art consists of soloists who have graced the series, including the Beaux Arts Trio, the Juilliard String Quartet and the LaSalle Quartet - circa 1956. A limited number of the 16-month calendars were printed for contributors of $100 or more.

The season opens Sept. 30 with the Mendelssohn Quartet and pianist Jonathan Biss. Call 381-1464 or visit to buy tickets or make a donation.


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