Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Coming to San Francisco Opera

The Spoleto Festival has exciting plans for 2022, including two world premiers and a staging of La Boheme by Yuval Sharon. Here is a chunk of their press release, about Rhiannon Giddens (!!!) and Michael Abels' new opera Omar. Make sure that you read as far as the boldfaced text:

World premiere
Music by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels
Libretto by Rhiannon Giddens
Directed by Kaneza Schaal
Conducted by John Kennedy

Principal cast: 
Jamez McCorkle, Omar
Cheryse McLeod Lewis, Omar’s mother
Laquita Mitchell, Julie

By 1808, Charleston’s ports alone recorded more than 100,000 West Africans who had been stolen from their homelands, whose brutal vanishings left families and generations to come wondering of their whereabouts and existences. Omar, a new opera based on the life and 1831 autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, tells one such story.

Opening in Senegal, the opera’s narrative traces Omar Ibn Said’s spiritual journey from his life in West Africa to his enslavement in the Carolinas. A Muslim African scholar, Said was 37 years old when he was captured in Futa Toro and brought to Charleston. His story is one of strength, resistance, and religious conviction, a story of truth and of faith.

Upon arrival in the United States, Said was sold to a Charlestonian, but escaped and fled to North Carolina, where he was recaptured, sent to jail, and then resold to James Owen, the brother of one of the state’s governors. Said penned his autobiography in Arabic in 1831. It is considered the only surviving autobiography of an enslaved person in the United States written in Arabic and therefore unedited. According to many scholars, as many as 30 percent of the enslaved Africans who arrived in the colonies, and subsequently the United States, were Muslim, a largely unexplored truth in modern American discussions of slavery.

Rhiannon Giddens, a Grammy Award winner and MacArthur Fellow known for exploring the legacy of African American folk traditions, has created the libretto. Giddens spoke about the opera: “To have the opportunity to craft an opera around Omar Ibn Said is a dream come true that I didn’t even know I had until I was deep in the thick of it. I realized I am a mere shepherd of this work—what is coming through me is truer than anything I could think up on purpose. This is my way, of the possible many, many ways, through the story that Omar represents. He was a remarkable man whose words speak to us beyond generations. Bringing this music to life with the supremely talented and collaborative composer Michael Abels has been nothing short of fantastic. I’ve learned much from Michael and from Omar, and I can only be honored that I have had a hand in bringing this version of his life to the operatic stage.” 

Giddens has co-composed the score with Michael Abels, an American composer perhaps best known for his work in award-winning films including Get Out and Us. Musically, the work incorporates West-African traditions with conventional Western opera instrumentation. It is written for a cast of 8 soloists with a full choir and orchestra. “Omar’s story demonstrates the power religious belief has to nurture and uplift the spirit under the direst circumstances,” says Abels. “The unavoidable postponement of the premiere due to the pandemic provided the opportunity for Rhiannon and me to enhance the storytelling and music even more. I’m excited beyond words to finally be able to share Omar’s journey with Spoleto audiences.”

Acclaimed opera and theater artist Kaneza Schaal leads the work’s direction. “The West has a fantasy of its singularity; it imagines itself as constant and fixed. Opera lost itself to that lie,” says Schaal, a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow. “This new work, about Omar Ibn Said, brings the opera back to its true self—a form built on hundreds of years of cultural exchange, and one that has always been deeply hybrid. It’s a place big enough for the contradiction, violence, and holiness of Said’s journey.”

Omar is co-produced by Spoleto Festival USA and Carolina Performing Arts at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Following its world premiere in Charleston, Omar will be presented in future seasons by opera companies including LA Opera, Boston Lyric Opera, San Francisco Opera, and Lyric Opera of Chicago. The opera is inspired by Dr. Ala Alryyes’s translation of Omar Ibn Said’s autobiography in his book, A Muslim American Slave: The Life of Omar Ibn Said. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. © 2011 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved.  

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