Jamez McCorkle (center) and the singers of Omar | Photo by Leigh Webber

The co-composers and director of the original opera have a shared understanding of musical and American identity

“Hey, do you want to write an opera with me?”

So said Grammy-winning musician and MacArthur fellow Rhiannon Giddens (more or less) to acclaimed composer Michael Abels. Giddens was commissioned to compose the opera Omar for Spoleto Festival USA, and felt she needed a writing partner. Although they had never worked together, Giddens and Abels had a mutual admiration for each other’s music. 

Giddens, who earned a degree in opera performance from Oberlin Conservatory of Music and famous for her work in musical acts including The Carolina Chocolate Drops, had never composed an opera before. She described contacting Abels as instinctual: “I had no idea what he thought about opera, if at all, and I just reached out cold.”

It turned out that Abels, who has been composing orchestral works for decades and who received critical adoration for composing the scores of Jordan Peele’s films Get Out and Us, had always wanted to compose an opera. The art form, with all its depth and grandeur, excites him. 

“Opera is an incredible storytelling medium,” he said. “And it really invites audiences to go on a journey–a journey that is music-driven but, at the same time, includes and incorporates every possible art to put on a stage.”

Several years into their collaboration, Giddens and Abels continue to sing each other’s praises. “I think she’s an ideal collaborator because she will say, ‘Here’s what works and here’s what’s speaking to me,’ and then she invites me, or whoever she works with, to bring their own A-game,” Abels said.

“I don’t know that I could have found a better person to create this piece with, because he could almost read my mind,” Giddens said of her and Abels’s workflow. 

Giddens wrote the music the only way she knew how, not with pen and paper but with her voice or her instruments, and then sent Abels the audio files. He, in turn, would add or augment harmonies and build out the music for a full orchestra. 

“I would hear what he had done with the material that I sent, and it just felt so natural to me,” said Giddens, who also wrote Omar’s libretto.

Both musicians were deeply inspired by the material, as was director Kaneza Schaal. Omar is based on the autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, a Muslim scholar who was torn from his home in Senegal and sold into slavery in 1807. Like hundreds of thousands of other Africans, he disembarked in Charleston after a harrowing and dehumanizing journey. 

Omar broke free and fled to North Carolina, but was ultimately recaptured. His autobiography is the only known memoir of a slave written in Arabic. Omar’s story is one of astonishing resilience and audacious faith, and this production is part of a movement to expand and reimagine the opera canon.

“Here we have this text written by Omar, a man who was literate before he became enslaved,” said Schaal, who works in film and theater as well as opera. “And the glory and triumph that these words exist, even if generated under duress, is magnificent. It’s holy.”

Giddens, a native of North Carolina, was shocked that she had not heard of Omar before. This production is about exhuming forgotten and erased histories, a practice that is essential to Giddens’s artistry. She strives to challenge the hegemonic concept of what it means to be an American. 

“I think that’s really been my push, to diversify people’s idea of what the American story is, because it is a very diverse story,” she said. “I’ve just been going digging and finding the stories that speak to me personally, as an artist, and then trying to highlight them, and trying to give them the spotlight.”

Abels also spoke of how Omar’s story enhances our understanding of American identity. 

“There are many American stories that are not told, either in our schools or in our history in general, and hearing our history from the perspective of everyone who is an American is something that needs to happen,” he said. “It gives everyone a greater understanding of who we are in the world today.”

Giddens and Abels are both resistant to rigid genre categorizations in their music. Giddens noted that genres were invented in order to sell music, and simply says that she plays American music. Abels thinks of genres in music as like accents in a language. 

The two drew on varied influences in composing Omar, including Senegalese music and Black American music. Giddens mentioned incorporating vernacular stylistic elements, and Abels cited Porgy and Bess, an iconic opera set in Charleston, as a necessary influence.

Omar was originally scheduled to premiere at Spoleto in 2020, but was delayed for two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Giddens said she and Abels completed the bulk of the composing in 2020. 

While the delay was unfortunate, it didn’t significantly affect their workflow: Abels is based in Los Angeles while Giddens currently calls Ireland home, so they were accustomed to working remotely.

Schaal, by contrast, signed on to direct Omar less than a year ago, which was late for a project of this scale. Although the accelerated timeline was not ideal, she said she found joy in it. 

“There’s something potent about deadlines and urgency in making art,” Schaal said. “I think the intensity and depth of the collaboration that was demanded by the short time frame has produced everything I could have hoped for.”

Omar runs May 27-June 12 at the College of Charleston Sottile Theatre. Tickets start at $76.50. To order tickets or for more information, visit spoletousa.org/omar.

Ellen E. Mintzer is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications Program at Syracuse University.

(Note that masks will be required for Spoleto indoor performances. Proof of vaccinations will not be required. More info here.)

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