CHORUS: No, no, no, no, no more -- no, no, no, no, no, no more, no, no, no.
JEFFREY BROWN: Backstage at the Detroit Opera House, chorus members of the Michigan theater warmed up for their performance of a new work, the tale of almost mythic horror, but based on a true story of a slave named Margaret Garner.
In 1856, the news shocked a nation heading toward Civil War: A mother who escaped her Kentucky master and, upon capture in Ohio, killed her own child rather than have her forced back into a life of slavery. More than a century later, the story served as a basis for Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "Beloved."
RICHARD DANIELPOUR: See, now that it's lit up, you'll see it differently. Let me show you.
JEFFREY BROWN: And now, Morrison and composer Richard Danielpour have teamed up to give Margaret Garner's story a new life. For both, it's a first attempt at opera.
TONI MORRISON: I came to it with the strength and trust of my knowing what that story was and what it was about and what was at stake.
JEFFREY BROWN: In this new version of the story, the slave family survives through hard work and love.
JEFFREY BROWN: When the family tastes freedom for the first time, a posse hunts them down, and Margaret feels she has no choice but to destroy the very people she loves most.
SINGING: Never to be born again into slavery!
RICHARD DANIELPOUR: One of the things that makes this story work well as an opera... but opera is an extreme art form. You know, it's not really a mirror of life as it is, but, possibly it's a mirror of life in a very heightened form. And so, so many operas are about extraordinary things that happen to ordinary people.
JEFFREY BROWN: Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. But opera, she says, was quite a new challenge.
TONI MORRISON: Operas are blatant. It's in your face. So, all the little, you know, novelistic tricks I thought I had are of no use when you're doing opera. You have to be much more economical, shorter. It has to be singable -- really singable, not just speakable. And it has to make way for the music. It can't be the music. It has to just allow, provoke, even beg for music.
JEFFREY BROWN: The role of Margaret Garner is sung by opera veteran Denyce Graves. At a key moment, she sings of what she calls her "secret soul" which no master can take away.
SINGING: No pretty words can ease or cure what heavy hands can do when sorrow is deep the secret soul keeps its quality, love.
DENYCE GRAVES: There's something inside the essence of who you are which remains intact that no one can touch, you know? No one can take that away from you. They can do whatever they want to do to your body, but they cannot reach that. They cannot touch that. It's like knowledge. It can't be taken away. And I think this is the knowledge of the soul. And I think that that really describes -- in that particular aria, that that really describes who she is.
JEFFREY BROWN: To find his way into his characters and to give each a voice, composer Danielpour says he felt as though he had to live with them for three years, the longest he's ever spent on one project.
DANIELPOUR: The best music comes not when you try to chisel it out and manufacture it, but when you wait and listen and surrender your own ego and surrender a sense of what you think you know and just listen. And in this case, listening had to do with listening to the text. There's already a music inherent in the text if you listen very carefully. And there's already a fully fleshed out character, both physically and visually, in all of these characters.
JEFFREY BROWN: In another way, too, "Margaret Garner" is an unusual collaboration between three cities: Detroit, where it opened; Cincinnati and Philadelphia, to which it will travel. It's clearly an effort to make opera exciting to a new, particularly African-American audience, and early ticket sales reflected success.
CORRIE TOWNS: Because of the historical issues that are related to this particular opera, I decided I wanted to see it.
WOMAN: I was interested in seeing the story of "Beloved," and I saw our read an article about Toni Morrison being here and the opera coming out, and just really wanted to see it.
KENNY LEON: It can't be phony. It can't be like the guy center stage doing this.
JEFFREY BROWN: Bringing in a new audience is also a goal for Kenny Leon. A successful theater director, including last year's Broadway revival of "Raisin in the Sun," this is his first time out as director of an opera.
JEFFREY BROWN: Did you know a lot about opera? Like opera?
KENNY LEON: I think some opera is good. I think most opera, to me, for my taste, is not very good. I think some of it is, you know, we come to the stage and, what they say, we "park and bark."
JEFFREY BROWN: You park and bark?
KENNY LEON: Park and bark. But I love the human voice. That voice is singing over that orchestra without amplification. I'm like, "What? I always thought they had microphones." No, that's the beauty of the human voice. So, I think I'm a huge opera fan now.
JEFFREY BROWN: Is there a difference in terms of storytelling?
KENNY LEON: No, I think storytelling is storytelling. I think that's what makes the fear factor pretty small for me, even though it's my first opera. Like I say in my neighborhood, I ain't scared because storytelling is storytelling.
JEFFREY BROWN: For Toni Morrison, there was one more inspiration: Offering something new to a group of very talented singers.
TONI MORRISON: I had discovered in the last five years this incredible, I don't know, population of African-American singers, classical singers that I didn't even know existed. I mean, I knew some, but it's amazing to me. They are everywhere, and not just in this country, in Europe. So, the notion of being able to provide something worthy of their talent was extremely delicious to me.
JEFFREY BROWN: For Denyce Graves, the role has been special and uniquely difficult.
DENYCE GRAVES: This is a real, live story, and it's a story that I've heard so much growing up. I mean, I am the daughter of the daughter of the daughter of the daughter, and somehow I feel connected to this woman.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, has this been hard, emotionally?
DENYCE GRAVES: Uh-huh, extremely. Not just for me but for everybody involved in this project.
SINGING: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no...
JEFFREY BROWN: In the opera, as in real life, Margaret Garner was charged with destruction of property because her child was owned by a slave master. In the opera, Garner is sentenced to hang. Though granted a reprieve, she lets herself fall to her death. The chorus, whites and blacks together, seeks forgiveness.
CHORUS: Have mercy, have mercy on us. Help us break through the night.
TONI MORRISON: There's this other thing, which is a kind of restoration, redemption that the opera can offer via its music, its words, its singers and its staging to the audience so that when you leave you know more, you felt more and you felt more deeply that somehow you are more human than you were, or you feel more human, more humane, more capable than you did when you came in.
JEFFREY BROWN: Morrison and everyone else involved with "Margaret Garner" hope that their work, like the story itself, will now live on.
MARGARET WARNER: "Margaret Garner" has its final performances in Detroit this weekend; it will go on to Cincinnati this summer and Philadelphia next February.