Welcome back to our short series leading up to the Los Angeles Opera’s West Coast premiere of Michael Abels’ opera Omar, co-composed with Grammy winning-artist and librettist Rhiannon Giddens. The opera tells the story of historical figure Omar Ibn Said, who was an 18th century West African scholar (from modern-day Senegal) who was captured by rivals, sold into the slave trade, and ultimately arrived in Charleston, SC. Giddens’ English-language libretto is directly based on translations of Said’s own Arabic-language texts and autobiographical essay. Omar received its world premiere in May 2022 at the Spoleto Festival USA with stage direction by Kaneza Schaal, led by music director John Kennedy. Schaal returns to direct LA Opera’s production which will be conducted by Kazem Abdullah. Jamez McCorkle originated the title role of Omar, and he reprises it for LA Opera’s performances.
Stage director Kaneza Schaal offers some insight into bringing Omar to the stage. “Over the last years, we have been in the bones of the country. The bones of our own psyches. And we have been in the bones of our industry, of opera, of what it means to gather and share breath. The opera we share with you touches all these bones: the story of Omar lbn Said, a Fulani man, forced to the United States and enslaved, literate before stolen from his home in West Africa, and author of an autobiography.
“The West has a fantasy of its singularity, it imagines itself as consistent and fixed. Opera lost itself to that lie. [In Omar,] we return the opera to itself. A form built on hundreds of years of cultural exchange, sonic exchange, formal and aesthetic with ‘others.’ A form dependent on many different kinds of artists teaming up. A form built of hybridity. Perhaps one of the only places big enough for Said’s journey, the contradiction, the violence, the holiness, the omissions, the terror, and the triumph.”
Schaal continues. “Slavery, of course, existed before people were torn from their homes in West Africa at gunpoint and enslaved in the United States. The institution of American Slavery wrought new violences as an institution of language. American Slavery created and named a permanent condition attached to your body. The ferocious clarity in American Slavery on the power of language, was such that one of the most sacrosanct laws was that you could not teach enslaved people to read. Or write. And here, we have a text! From Omar lbn Said. Written by Omar. An Islamic scholar who was literate before mercenaries enslaved him. His autobiography is the prayer from which the music and words you [will] hear were created. The glory and triumph that his words exist, even if generated under duress, is holy.
“We gather to tell you Said’s story through the contest of languages in his life, spiritual languages, cultural languages, spoken and written languages, the language of materials like wood and fabric. And ultimately, his holding of all these languages simultaneously brims with resistance, omission, refusal, and reincarnation. [By] listening to the story of Omar lbn Said, together, let us begin resetting the bones.”
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.