After two years of patiently waiting, the time has finally come. Tonight, Spoleto Festival USA’s 46th season will open with the world premiere, Omar – a newly commissioned opera by Rhiannon Giddens. The opera is based on the autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, an enslaved Muslim-African man who was brought to Charleston in 1807. The story traces his spiritual journey from Africa to his capture and enslavement in the Carolinas.
Jamez McCorkle as Omar
A Little More…
Omar Ibn Said penned his autobiography in Arabic in 1831, about the time he was 61 years old. It is considered the only surviving, unedited autobiography of a Muslim slave written in Arabic in the United States. In 2017, Ibn Said’s work was acquired by the Library of Congress, which translated it into English and later digitized the original as part of a 42-piece collection of documents, letters, and newspaper clippings. (View the Library of Congress’s Omar Ibn Said collection)
Though his memoir ends some 30 years before he was laid to rest, still enslaved, this record of his life and Muslim faith reveals a refusal to be defined or erased by his captors. It’s a seminal work of strength, resistance, and religious conviction—a work underscoring the indelible power of the written word.
On Tuesday night, cast took the stage to sing out the story of Omar for the first full dress rehearsal inside Sottile Theatre. Through dynamic stage designs complimented by the herculean operatic voices, the audience felt the power of Omar Ibn Said’s words come to life.
Act 1, Scene 2 The Middle Passage
Jamez McCorkle (left) as Omar, with Julie, an enslaved woman, played by Laquita Mitchell, warns Omar of what’s to come in Act 1, Scene 3.
Omar is sold to a man named Johnson.
Omar’s Mother, Fatima, played by Cheryse McLeod Lewis, comes to Omar in his restless slumber in Act 1, Scene 5.
Owen, a devout Christian, brings Omar to his plantation after his daughter urges him to purchase Omar in Act 2, Scene 1.
Katie Ellen/The Caller, played by Catherine Ann Daniel, performs as the Caller, while the ensemble square dances in Act 2, Scene 2.
In the final act, the spirit of Omar’s mother joins Julie in urging him to write about his experiences and faith coming together in group song, “Tell your story, Omar.” To go along with this message, Festival Staff has taken a deeper dive into documenting the making of Omar. Throughout the Festival, #TellYourStoryOmar will bring you reflection videos from the creative team, and we’ll go behind the scenes to watch this groundbreaking work come to life. Follow along on Facebook and Instagram.
About the Creative Team
Nearly two centuries have passed yet Omar Ibn Said’s story lives on today through the underscoring work of Composer Rhiannon Giddens, alongside Co-Composer Michael Abels.
“I was compelled to create a musical space for his voice to live.” -Rhiannon Giddens
Giddens, known for exploring the legacy of African-American folk traditions, was chosen by Spoleto Festival USA in 2019 to mold Omar. She is credited with creating the libretto—the words/script of the opera—as well as composing the music.
To help her develop the score, Michael Abels, an American composer who has written music for Jordan Peele’s acclaimed films Get Out and Us, is working closely with Giddens. The opera is being composed for a cast of seven leads, a small chorus and an orchestra with the music incorporating West-African traditions with more conventional Western opera instruments.
Acclaimed opera and theater artist Kaneza Schaal is directing Omar. Schaal works in theater, opera, and film, and is based in New York City. Her work has shown in divergent contexts from NYC basements to courtyards in Vietnam, to East African amphitheaters, to European opera houses, to US public housing, to rural auditoriums in the UAE.
With Schaal is Spoleto Festival USA Resident Conductor, John Kennedy, leading the orchestra. Kennedy has been a change-maker in music for over 30 years, leading acclaimed performances and premieres worldwide of opera, orchestral, ballet, and new music.
Connect on Social
Find Kaneza Schaal on Instagram.
Omar will take the stage at College of Charleston Sottile Theatre beginning Friday, May 27, and will run until Sunday, June 12.