On May 22, 2020, Spoleto Festival USA’s 44th season will open with a world premiere, a newly commissioned opera by Rhiannon Giddens, 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.

What is Michael Abels’s role in making this opera?

While Giddens is creating the libretto—the words/script of the opera—and working on the music, too, Abels is working closely with her to develop the score and orchestrations. It’s being composed for a cast of seven leads, a small chorus and an orchestra, and the music incorporates West-African traditions with more conventional Western opera instruments (think: strings, woodwinds, percussion, etc.). “In telling Omar’s story with the orchestra, it’s crucial that there are elements that represent him culturally, with Arabic and African influences,” says Abels, who studied West African music at the California Institute for the Arts after receiving his undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music. “There will be some instruments and tonality that honor those cultures and bring them into the opera house. Opera can address stories and the human condition in a way virtually no other art form can.”

Have I heard Abels’s work before?

Most likely, yes! An American composer, Abels has written music for Jordan Peele’s acclaimed films Get Out and Us as well as the Netflix movie See You Yesterday, directed by Stefon Bristol and produced by Spike Lee. It’s recently been announced that he’s also composed work for upcoming movie Bad Education, staring Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney, slated to premiere later this year. Outside of his film achievements, Abels is an accomplished composer of concert symphonic works, having received commissions from the National Symphony, Nashville Symphony, Harlem Quartet, and the Chicago Sinfonietta and the Shedd Aquarium. He was commissioned by the Los Angeles Opera to compose the opera Homies & Popz, which premiered in May 2000 at high schools throughout Los Angeles County. His 1991 work, Global Warming (click this link to listen),was one of the first works by an African-American composer performed by the National Symphony of South Africa following the election of President Nelson Mandela.

Abels’s composition, Urban Legends, written for the Harlem Quartet and Sphinx Symphony:

About the Omar Ibn Said opera—in Abels’s words:

“When Rhiannon asked if I’d be interested in collaborating on this work, my answer was immediately ‘yes.’ She’s an amazing artist who I admire for many reasons, and also because of the incredible story behind the opera. The life of Omar Ibn Said is both an important historical record that really resonates in the current state of our country. We’re in a particular place in history where religion is being used to blame, separate, and isolate people from one another. This story is a perfect chance to put that conflict onstage and allow people to see it in ways that can be healing and transcendent of personal differences.”

Discover more:

Listen to a Michael Abels playlist on Spotify:

Listen to a radio interview with Abels on WWFM’s “A Tempo” about the Omar Ibn Said opera.
Hear Abels, along with filmmaker Jordan Peele, on NPR’s “Morning Edition.
Check out Composers Diversity Collective, an organization Abels co-founded that promotes diversity and inclusion in music for media.

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Photo at top by Todd Robinson.