As we approach the Los Angeles Opera’s West Coast premiere of Michael Abels’ opera Omar, we check-in with Grammy-winner Rhiannon Giddens. Giddens co-composed original music for Omar and also wrote the opera’s English-language libretto. Omar was commissioned by the Spoleto Festival USA (Charleston, SC) and received its premiere in May 2022. The opera is scored for an eight-member cast and chorus. LA Opera’s production opens on October 22, and runs for six performances.
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 and imprisoned during a military engagement 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. This essay serves as the inspiration for Giddens’ libretto.
“Omar is at once a story of one man and many,” Giddens shares. “He is himself, trying to understand the shape his life has taken; he is the enslaved Muslin (of which there were so many more than we will ever know) seeking his community in any way he can; his is the eternal outsider. The fractured yet steadfast nature of the African diaspora struggling for survival in the Americas wraps around his journey, as I have envisioned it; the anonymous voices of the countless Black musical creators from my musical lineage are shot through a score that is nevertheless firmly situated at a crossroads of the folk and western classical traditions. Who was Omar? We will never really know.”
She continues. “This Omar is merely one of a thousand different possible interpretations of his writings and what we know of his life. Nevertheless, I heard an echo of his voice reaching out to me over the centuries – felt the spirits rise in me with every word written and every note composed. I felt the connection to a time that I cannot easily imagine; a time that tested the ancestors, gave no quarter, and took an unfathomable strength of spirit to survive. I hope this is merely the beginning of the artistic renderings of this remarkable man — let this not be the last operatic word on Omar, but merely the first. And I am honored it is so.” To listen to Giddens talk about Omar in her own words, click here to view a short clip from La Opera’s “Behind the Story.”
To learn more about the Los Angeles Opera’s upcoming production of Omar, visit their site here to find out more, to view the trailer, and to watch a nationally televised CBS Sunday Morning sneak-peak chat with both creators Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels.