On May 22, 2020, Spoleto Festival USA’s 44th season will open with the world premiere of a newly commissioned opera by Rhiannon Giddens, a Grammy Award winner and MacArthur fellow known for exploring the legacy of African-American folk traditions. Michael Abels is working closely with Giddens to develop the score. 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.
How does a Festival create an opera from the ground up? Here, Nicole Taney, Spoleto’s Director of Artistic Planning and Operations—and one of the opera’s key producers—shares some insight into her role.
What is your role?
I’m producing the opera in conjunction with the Festival’s General Director Nigel Redden and the Festival’s Director of Production, Mike East. In a lot of ways, I act as a liaison between the artists involved (such as Rhiannon and Michael and their respective teams) and the Festival’s artistic leaders, like John Kennedy, Spoleto’s Director of Orchestral Activities and the opera’s conductor. I negotiate terms of engagement for all involved—the director and creative team, composers, and additional artistic staff—as well as start conversations with each sector and put them in touch with the Festival’s many departments.
I also make sure the opera’s process continues moving forward by helping all parts stay on task, setting goals and deadlines, and working out what’s realistically achievable. In a business world, you might compare it to a project manager—though I’m involved in many of the creative and artistic conversations and decisions, so it’s not purely administrative.
What’s going on in the opera’s creation process right now, and how are you involved?
We’ve officially named the opera! A Spoleto staff member made a suggestion for a name, which we discussed internally, and then I shared it with Rhiannon and Michael to get their thoughts. They spoke about it earlier this week and got back to me on Monday: It’s a go! The world premiere is now titled Omar.
What are some challenges about this opera in particular?
Unlike new productions of existing operas the Festival often mounts, this world premiere is still in development. That’s not entirely unusual, but it does add some suspense to the process. At this point with new productions of existing work, we might be a little further along with finalizing casting and the creative direction, but as the final elements of this opera come together, those details will as well.
In terms of casting, there are three principal roles set: Omar, Omar’s mother, and James Owen/Master. We are currently working to fill additional roles, and I’m acting as a liaison between the director, conductor, Spoleto’s artistic administrator, and the two composers. It’s helpful to have Rhiannon and Michael involved with the casting as they can provide insight on the specific types of voices they have in mind for the characters. It’s also a very collaborative process, which can sometimes take a bit longer, but it does provide invaluable feedback.
In the midst of all this, you’re also planning the rest of the 2020 season. How do you balance it all?
Certain days or half days are devoted to Omar entirely, since producing the opera requires a different mentality than building a season and thinking about how the various works fit together. It’s a high pressure work environment every day in August, September, and October—until the program is finalized—and that shifting of gears between Omar and the rest makes for long work days. I keep a lot of to-do lists to make sure things don’t fall through the cracks.
Omar discussions started back in 2017, and then it was even harder to split my brain for something slated for three years in the future. But now it’s so exciting to hear some of the music and see how it’s taking shape. The 2020 season is all coming together—and it will be a great one. Be sure to stay tuned in November and December for a few teasers!
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Photo at top: Omar conductor John Kennedy (center) rehearses with composer/librettist Rhiannon Giddens and musicians before a music development workshop in New York City, September 18, 2019. Co-composer Michael Abels (seated, foreground) reads along with the score.