Omar, the transformative opera by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels centering the story of an enslaved Muslim scholar, received the 2023 Pulitzer Prize in Music, Columbia University announced today. The work was recognized for its expansion of the traditional opera canon, challenging its standard practice and repertoire with musical influences from the Muslim diaspora, spirituals, bluegrass, hymns, and the earliest melody transcribed from enslaved people in North America.
“A hearty congratulations to Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels for this well-deserved recognition,” says Mena Mark Hanna, Spoleto Festival USA General Director & CEO. “From the extraordinary autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, they composed an opera of searing beauty and profound meaning. Spoleto is proud to have shepherded Omar’s creative development and presented its world premiere.”
Omar was commissioned by Spoleto Festival USA in 2017 and premiered at the Festival May 27, 2022. The world premiere production was directed by Kaneza Schaal and conducted by John Kennedy, with production design by Christopher Myers, set design by Amy Rubin, costume design by April Hickman and Micheline Russell-Brown, lighting design by Lucrecia Briceno, and video design by Joshua Higgason. The title role was originated by American tenor Jamez McCorkle.
Omar is based on the life and autobiography of Omar Ibn Said. Originally written in Arabic in 1831 and held in private collections, the memoir was digitized by the Library of Congress in 2017. It is considered the only surviving autobiography of an enslaved person in the United States written in Arabic, and therefore unedited. That the opera was developed by an international arts festival in Charleston is of particular significance: its premiere was less than a mile from Gadsden’s Wharf—the site of Said’s forced entry to the US.
Since its premiere at Spoleto, the work has traveled for engagements in Los Angeles; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and Boston. Omar was co-produced by Spoleto Festival USA, Carolina Performing Arts at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Detroit Opera. Additional co-commissioners include LA Opera, Boston Lyric Opera, San Francisco Opera, and Lyric Opera of Chicago.