Margaret Garner is an American opera loosely based on the life of runaway slave Margaret Garner. The music was composed by Richard Danielpour and the libretto was written in English by Toni Morrison working from the same material used in her book Beloved. It is one of only a few operas written about the African-American experience; the other notable examples being George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and Scott Joplin's Treemonisha. The 2-act opera explores themes of freedom and personal and community relationships and makes some use of the African American musical tradition of spirituals. It was the first libretto for the author and the first opera for the composer who began work on the opera in 1998. The opera premiered on May 7, 2005 at the Michigan Opera Theatre, whose company had commissioned it along with the Cincinnati Opera and the Opera Company of Philadelphia. Denyce Graves sang the title role in the premiere run which featured a cast of nearly one hundred, flaming torches and a hanging on stage and blackpowder pistols. The opera requires a large cast because of the requirement for separate African and Caucasian choruses to portray the slaves and slave-owners. Other members of the initial cast were Angela M. Brown as Cilla, Robert Baker (singer) as Robert Garner, Rod Gilfry as Edward Gaines, Roger Honeywell as the Auctioneer and John Mac Master as Casey.
The plot follows the slave Margaret Garner as a new master comes to the Kentucky plantation she works on. Margaret catches her new owner's eye and is brought in to work in the "big house" and her husband, Robert, is rented out to another farm. While the widowed plantation owner, Edward Gaines, sees Margaret as a sexual object, his daughter, Caroline, comes to see Margaret as a sort of foster mother. At Caroline's engagement party, a rift develops between Edward and his daughter over her respect for Margaret. Robert returns to escape with Margaret and his children but his mother refuses to go, claiming to be too old to learn the new habits of freedom. While they prepare to escape, the overseer finds them and, after a struggle, Robert kills him. The couple and their two children flee, but are later found by Edward and a posse. After a gun fight, Robert is captured and lynched. Margaret kills her two daughters to prevent them being returned to slavery but she is taken alive. Edward forces a criminal trial where Margaret is charged with "destruction of property" for the killing of his slaves, her daughters. Caroline appeals to Edward to advance the abolitionist agenda by having Margaret tried for murder instead, acknowledging the slaves' humanity. Robert refuses, but after the verdict and sentence of execution, fearing losing Caroline but still believing he acted as a "proper" gentleman, he obtains a commutation for Margaret if she admits her guilt. Ignoring him, Margaret herself steps off the gallows.