Abels: Bringing OMAR to Life

On May 27, 2022, Spoleto Festival USA presents the world premiere of the opera Omar, co-composed by Grammy-winner Rhiannon Giddens, and two-time Emmy nominee and Subito composer Michael Abels. The opera features a libretto written by Giddens; and, the production will be directed by Kaneza Schaal. John Kennedy conducts the eight-member cast (and chorus) which highlights tenor Jamez McCorkle in the title role. Omar was originally scheduled to premiere in May 2020, but due to the COVID pandemic it was postponed until this spring. Omar’s subsequent performances follow on May 30th, June 2nd, 5th, 8th and 12th. On May 28th, Giddens and Abels will join CBS News correspondent Martha Teichner as she hosts “Conversations with…” — an informal artist chat that will illuminate the creative process. As we approach the premiere, here is our first behind-the-scenes look into bringing this new opera to life.

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.

OMAR: Q & A with composer Michael Abels

Omar Ibin Said; Randolph Linsly Simpson African-American Collection. James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection in the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

S: How did this commission come about?

Abels: SpoletoUSA approached Grammy-winning native Carolinan songwriter and trained opera singer Rhiannon Giddens about composing an opera on the life of Omar ibn Said. Rhiannon approached me about collaborating with her, and I jumped at the chance.

S: Had you previously known about Omar ibn Said and his autobiography? What did you think once you began discovering Omar’s story?

Abels: I had not known about Omar ibn Said prior to this project, and that lack of knowledge is part of the point. Omar’s story, like so many black contributions to American history, is not commonly known or taught. In learning the details we do have about Omar, I was struck by his perseverance, and reminded of the perseverance of all enslaved people.

S: Your opera Omar is a co-composition as well as a collaboration with Rhiannon Giddens. How did setting Rhiannon’s libretto — which is based on Omar’s writings — fit into your own compositional and orchestration processes as well as her own newly composed songs?

Abels: I think my approach to writing for the voice is similar to Rhiannon’s, so it was easy to write in a way that met her intentions. Once we had written enough of Omar to understand where it needed to be on the spectrum of traditional vs. experimental, and of folk music vs. concert music, then we had a clear path forward. My orchestral music has always been influenced by folk music, so that intersection was also familiar for me.

Pictured: Michael Abels (seated back-to-camera with score) and Rhiannon Giddens (seated center on-stage) during a pre-Covid pandemic rehearsal of Omar. Photo courtsey:
Michael Abels/Spoleto Festival USA

S: Are there aspects of the process that surprised you along the way as you worked on the opera?

Abels: Even though it wasn’t exactly surprising, it was still amazing how long a journey writing an opera is. It’s very challenging to sustain a very particular creative space over a period of years as the world and your life changes around it.

S: Because Omar Ibn Said is an actual historical figure in American history, is there a moment — or perhaps are there several moments — in Omar’s story that profoundly struck you?

Abels: Omar’s autobiography was written under the duress of enslavement, guided by the watchful eyes of captors who demanded he covert to Christianity. But Rhiannon has found the heart of his story in her libretto, so the opera Omar definitely has its share of unforgettable emotional moments, both devastating and inspiring. I can’t be more specific as that would spoil it!

S: What do you hope audience members and future listeners will learn and take away from the opera?

Abels: I hope audience members and future listeners are left in awe of the power of faith to transcend even the harshest circumstances, and of the artistry of the singers and musicians who bring Omar’s story to life.