On October 22, 2022, the Los Angeles Opera presents Michael Abels’ opera Omar, in its second performances following the opera’s May 2022 premiere which took place at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, SC. Commissioned by Spoleto Festival USA and Carolina Performing Arts, Omar was co-composed with Grammy-winning musician and librettist Rhiannon Giddens. The two-act opera is written for an eight-member cast and chorus, and features an English-language libretto. The premiere – which showcased tenor Jamez McCorkle in the title role – was directed by Kaneza Schaal and conducted by John Kennedy. LA Opera’s six-performance run will highlight the company’s West-Coast premiere, and will also be directed by Kaneza Schaal. Kazem Abdullah will conduct and Jamez McCorkle returns as Omar.
Omar is based on the 1831 autobiographical essay of historical figure Omar Ibn Said, a 37-year-old West African Islamic scholar (from present-day Senegal), who was captured during a military engagement. He was subsequently imprisoned and sent to Charleston, SC where he was sold into slavery in 1807. Though enslaved for the rest of his life, Said wrote a series of Arabic-language works on Islamic theology and history, including his posthumously published essay “The Life of Omar Ibn Said,” which was written some 30 years before his death. Said’s essay was the inspiration for Giddens’ English-language libretto, and is now housed and available online in the Omar Ibn Said Collection at The Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
Before Omar’s world premiere at Spoleto, we briefly chatted with Michel Abels; and now, we return to quickly follow-up with him as Omar’s second-run approaches at the LA Opera. (In case you missed our original, pre-premiere Q & A with the composer, you can catch-up here.)
OMAR in LA: Q & A with composer Michael Abels
S: Last spring, Omar – your first opera – was celebrated in its world premiere at the Spoleto Festival USA. The New York Times called it a “sweeping achievement…moving, joyous and in its final moments intensely spiritual.” Common thought is that presenting new operas can be challenging endeavors. What do you think of Omar’s success? How did you prepare for the world premiere?
Abels: I’m very gratified by the response to Omar. I think it’s a very moving work, but I’m hardly an objective listener! To discover that feeling is shared by others is a wonderful validation. As to how I prepared for the premiere, I don’t know how to answer that. I attended rehearsals, and I bought a new suit. I don’t know how else one would do it. Maybe *not* buy a new suit?
S: The true story of Omar Ibin Said took place in Spoleto’s surrounding Charleston area. With that local connection, were you surprised that Omar – based on this little-known historical figure in American history – would capture audiences’ reactions in such a vivid and visceral way?
Abels: I wasn’t surprised that Omar’s story would engage audiences beyond Charleston because the themes and emotions of the work are universal.
S: Since the premiere, and having seen your opera come to life in performance, have you garnered any new insight into the historical Omar’s story?
Abels: Going to Charleston made Omar’s story resonate even more for me. Historical operas can seem like fables, disconnected from the present. When you visit the site where it happened, though, the story suddenly becomes very real.
S: Following-up on the idea of presenting new operas, LA Opera is about to offer the West Coast premiere of Omar. It will be the second (!) production within six months…quite remarkable news for a contemporary opera. How do you feel about that?
Abels: I’m beyond excited that Omar’s West Coast premiere is taking place only six months after the world premiere. Composers always hope their work will enjoy multiple performances, but that’s even more rare in opera. Besides putting the work in front of more people, other performances are great learning opportunities for composers. Hearing things that go differently in the hands of new musicians — or things that turn out exactly the same! — is the perfect way to understand what things will work no matter the venue, and what things are working only because of the skill of particular performers, or the size of the hall.
S: Lastly, when we previously spoke on the eve of Omar’s world premiere, you mentioned that you hoped “audience members and future listeners are left in awe of the power of faith to transcend even the harshest circumstances.” Do you have anything to add to that, and how do you think Omar’s story will translate to Los Angeles audiences?
Abels: The message I hope audiences take from Omar is exactly what I said. But since LA is my hometown, I’m looking forward to hearing the response and feedback from friends and colleagues from various walks of life. I’m thrilled to be able to share Omar’s story with so many people I love.
For more details about the Los Angeles Opera’s upcoming production of Omar, visit their site here to learn more, to view the trailer, and to watch a nationally televised CBS Sunday Morning sneak-peak chat with both creators Michael Abels and Rhiannon Giddens.