On May 22, 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’s Gadsden’s Wharf in 1807. The story traces his spiritual journey from Africa to his capture and enslavement in the Carolinas.
What is Giddens’s role in making this opera?
Giddens is 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. The music incorporates West-African traditions with more conventional Western opera instruments (think: strings, woodwinds, percussion, etc.).
Why did the Festival choose Giddens?
Tapping Giddens to mold this opera was an easy decision. The Grammy winning singer, songwriter, violinist, and banjoist is also a musical archaeologist—she’s known for exploring the legacy of African-American folk traditions, honoring marginalized artists, and drawing from historical documents to create original music. She also has a background in opera—she studied vocal performance at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. “My work as a whole is about excavating and shining a light on pieces of history that not only need to be seen and heard, but that can also add to the conversation about what’s going on now,” says Giddens. “This is a story that hasn’t been represented in the operatic world—or in any world.”
Where have I seen her before?
Giddens is no stranger to Spoleto Festival USA. The band she founded in 2005, Carolina Chocolate Drops, performed during Spoleto’s 2008 and 2010 seasons, and in 2017, she returned to the Festival as a solo artist. Giddens received a Grammy Award with the Carolina Chocolate Drops in 2010 and, in 2017, was named a MacArthur Fellow. In 2019 alone, Giddens released two albums: Songs of Our Native Daughters with Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell, and Amythyst Kiah and there is no Other, a collaborative album with Francesco Turrisi. She composed music for Nashville Ballet’s 2019 premiere Lucy Negro Redux, and was a regular cast member on the CMT television drama Nashville. Rhiannon is the host of the opera-focused podcast Aria Code.
Listen to Rhiannon Giddens on Spotify.
Listen to Aria Code, a podcast hosted by Rhiannon Giddens and produced by The Metropolitan Opera and WNYC Studios/WQXR.
Read “Rhiannon Giddens and What Folk Music Means” in The New Yorker (May 20, 2019).
Read “Rhiannon Giddens’ 21st-Century Sound Has a Long History” in Smithsonian magazine (March 2019).
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