Margaret Garner. Photo by John Grigaitis
Porgy and Bess is what I would call my 'gateway opera.' Please forgive the drug analogy, but it truly helped me as a die-hard musical theater fan to branch out and develop an equally devoted love of opera.
So imagine my excitement this month when the Windy City hosts not only Porgy and Bess in its Lyric Opera of Chicago premiere, but the local premiere of a new American opera.
That work is Margaret Garner, co-written by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison and Grammy Award-winning composer Richard Danielpour. Though many critics have been sniffy about it, Margaret Garner has attracted audiences in droves since its 2005 debut at Detroit's Michigan Opera Theatre.
Like Morrison's novel Beloved, Margaret Garner takes its inspiration from an actual event in American history. In 1856, a fugitive slave facing recapture tried to murder herself and her children rather than return her family to the shackles of slavery. The resulting trial was extremely controversial, since prosecutors didn't want Garner tried for murder, but for 'destruction of property.'
Detroit's staging of Margaret Garner was subsequently seen in Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Charlotte, N.C. A completely separate production played at New York City Opera in 2007 ( a rare honor for a new opera to have a second physical production so soon after its debut ) .
Michigan Opera Theatre's 2008 revival of Margaret Garner travels intact to Chicago's Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University for five performances staring Nov. 1. The mere fact that Margaret Garner is playing the acoustically acclaimed Auditorium is reason enough to go since it has been decades since the 1889 theater has hosted a full-scale opera.
Gregg Baker, a world-renowned Verdi baritone and South Side native who grew up in Morgan Park, performs the role of Robert, Margaret Garner's husband, for four performances. Baker created the role alongside celebrated mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves ( she appears in the first two Chicago performances, while Tracie Luck finishes the run ) .
Yet Baker is most famous for his hulking and sexy turn as the villainous Crown in Porgy and Bess. Baker starred in the first Metropolitan Opera performances of composer George Gershwin's great American opera in 1985, and his performance of Crown from the 1986 Glyndebourne Festival Opera was preserved on CD and in a 1993 TV movie ( that's how I first experienced the opera ) .
Margaret Garner is a glorious and somewhat bittersweet homecoming for Baker. He credits the Lyric Opera of Chicago's education programs for Chicago Public Schools for introducing him to the art form in high school. But despite Baker's world-wide success, he has yet to perform at his hometown opera company.
'While my mother was still alive, it was very important that I come to the Lyric,' Baker said. Baker did get close in a planned Lyric Opera staging of Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle starring him and soprano Jessye Norman. Unfortunately, the production fell through.
Baker would have liked to be part of the Lyric's Porgy and Bess, too, since he has a 14-year history performing it. Yet, he's happy to be part of another accessible opera dealing with African-American culture that he hopes will attract more people to the art form.
'From an African-American perspective, it's great to see more young people coming to the theater because there's something they can identify with, albeit with a difficult subject matter,' Baker said. 'Doing Margaret Garner is far more than a job for me, the story is one that I think needs to be told.'
Though he isn't Black, composer Danielpour feels his collaboration with Morrison presents a more authentic depiction of African-Americans than the ones Gershwin and his collaborators created for Porgy and Bess.
'One of the things that I find in common is that Gershwin was drawing from vernacular elements that were not considered classical art music in order to make his opera,' Danielpour said. 'In many ways I did the same.'
For Margaret Garner director Kenny Leon ( best known for directing Sean Combs in A Raisin in the Sun on stage and for TV ) , the story lends itself to opera because of the brutality of it.
'I hope that young folks come to see this as their first opera,' Leon said. It's accessible 'because it's in English and it's in a classical form that supports gospel and spirituals and R&B and jazz –all African-American musical contributions are interwoven into this opera.'
As for me, I'm savoring seeing both Margaret Garner and Porgy and Bess. Having the two performing back-to-back reminds me how Chicago is so culturally rich.
Margaret Garner plays the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress, through Nov. 9. Ticket run $40-$150. Call 312-902-1500 or visit www.auditoriumtheatre.org . Porgy and Bess plays 13 performances Nov. 18-Dec. 19 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker. Tickets run $32-$197. Call 312-332-2244 or visit www.lyricopera.org .
We all want that for ourselves, so I think anyone in life who exhibits that, we are attracted to and inspired to do the same.
WCT: For young LGBT aspiring musicians and actors out there, what is your advice?
LK: If you hide your journey, you have nothing to say. That's number one. And two, it ain't about you. I believe we all have very specific gifts, whether it be music or like my mom, who is an amazing caregiver. That is what we are intended to do—to just serve the world around us. It is our service. When we approach our career from that way, we find that everything that we need begins to just be there and support us in that endeavor. If you really want to know the secret, it's not about us.
See www.levikreis.com . Million Dollar Quartet runs through Sunday, Oct. 26, in Goodman's Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn; call 312-443-3800 or visit www.goodmantheatre.org .