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Owing to my voyage aboard the cargo/cruiser Aranui from Tahiti to Pitcairn Island, I missed most presentations of Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels’ Omar, but am very glad I was able to catch its last performance. Because – like LA Opera’s season opener, an updated version of Gaetano Donizetti’s 835 opera Lucia di LammermoorOmar is a highly innovative work that expands the operatic medium, in terms of theme, idiom and mode of expression.

This almost three-hour work, which world premiered earlier this year at the Spoleto Festival, located – appropriately enough – in Charleston, South Carolina, is based on the true story of Omar ibn Said, who was born 1770 in the imamate (theocratic state) of Futa Toro in what is now the West African nation of Senegal. Like Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, Said also wrote a narrative account of his life, and his 1831 autobiography, which I believe he originally wrote in Arabic, forms the basis for the story that librettist and co-composer Rhiannon Giddens adapt and relate in Omar.

New Opera Opposes White Supremacy

Jamez McCorkle as Omar

The son of a well-to-do family, Said was an Islamic scholar who was kidnapped in 1807 by slavers and transported to Charleston, where he was sold into slavery. After escaping from a cruel master in South Carolina, he was bought by a more “enlightened” owner in North Carolina. The literate (albeit in Arabic) Said was recognized as a learned man by his new master, who tried to convert Said to Christianity. The African forced transplant died – still enslaved – at an advanced age, only one year before the end of the Civil War.

While there have been other Black-themed operas, such as Giuseppe Verdi’s 1887 adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy about interracial love, Otello, the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess and Anthony Davis’ 2019 The Central Park Five, Omar is the first major operatic piece I’m aware of that depicts the Middle Passage and a slave auction on the live stage. These scenes are extremely powerful and it is highly commendable that Omar dramatizes these important historic events, especially as rightwing efforts are afoot to stifle the teaching of slavery in some school systems, amidst rabid attacks on “critical race theory.” A well-known period image of a cross section of a slave ship is, as are other graphics projected onstage.

Said’s stalwart insistence upon remaining true to himself and his Islamic faith is likewise truly admirable. Giddens’ libretto shines a light upon a little-known fact of African American history, that long before the Nation of Islam was formed and Malcolm X appeared on the scene, the teachings of the prophet Mohammed played a considerable role in the annals of what is now the U.S.A.

New Opera Opposes White Supremacy

Jacqueline Echols as Julie 

According to the Voice of America, “Ibn Said was among the approximately one-third of American slaves who were Muslim. While the exact number of enslaved Muslims is unknown, up to 40 percent of those who were captured and enslaved came from predominantly Muslim parts of West Africa.” 

The opera devolves into a sort of pageant celebrating Islam and as such could be viewed as a form of proselytizing propaganda. Nonbelievers may question whether Islam was indeed the best path to take in order to emancipate the enslaved people. Secular humanists, atheists, Marxists, et al, may contend that abolitionism, the militant direct action of John Brown (which arguably triggered the Civil War), the Union Army and nationalism are what ended slavery and liberated Black people, not religious “mumbo jumbo” – by Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, animists, transcendentalists, Zoroastrians, etc., or whatever religion.

The multi-talented Giddens (who is a Genius Grant recipient, Grammy Award co-winner and six-time Grammy nominee) and her co-composer, Michael Abels, draw upon a cacophony of sounds to render their beautiful soundtrack, incorporating music from Senegal, the folk tradition of enslaved African Americans, classical music and more. (Giddens is also an interview subject in Ken Burns’ PBS documentary Country Music.) The musical mélange is original and lovely to listen to and behold, as well as stirring where it is apropos.

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New Opera Opposes White Supremacy

Jacqueline Echols as Julie and Jamez McCorkle as Omar

LA Opera Orchestra is ably conducted by Indiana’s Kazem Abdullah. Montana’s Jeremy Frank is Omar’s chorus director for this piece where the chorus – approximately 40 singers – plays an outsized, essential role. Brooklynite Kiara Benn’s choreography enlivens the score by visualizing through dance movements – which includes the leitmotif of a sort of Mother Africa spirit garbed in multi-hued raiment who appears time to tome throughout the saga – the essence of Omar’s soundtrack and philosophy.

Colorado’s Joshua Higgason’s projection design collaborates closely with scenic designer Philadelphian Amy Rubin’s sets, plus with April M. Hickman and Micheline Russell-Brown’s costumes, to express and evoke Omar’s time periods, far-flung locales and meanings. This is done in a very creative, trendsetting manner, and it is noteworthy that Omar ibn Said is first (and last!) glimpsed in modern dress, hinting that his hidden story is also that of the great masses of what Black Power prophet Stokely Carmichael called the “Africans in America.”

New Orleans’ tenor Jamez McCorkle excels as the title character, not only in the range of his musical prowess, but in his acting, which always projects a dignified sensibility, come hell or high water. As Fatima, mezzo-soprano New Yorker Amanda Lynn Bottoms brings Said’s mother alive as an animating force, even from across the Atlantic Ocean. This was especially touching to me personally as I just lost my own beloved 93-year-old mother about a week ago. Michigander soprano Jacqueline Echols, who previously played Pip in LA Opera’s production of Moby Dick, is lovely as Julie, one of Said’s enslaved comrades.

New Opera Opposes White Supremacy

Jamez McCorkle as Omar and Daniel Okulitch as Owen

It’s worth pointing out that the audience at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion included many more Black fans than usual, demonstrating that people long to experience productions where they can relate to characters on the stage and screen who look and think like them. Diversity is not only a moral imperative, but also simply makes good business sense, not only in drawing otherwise neglected ticket buyers but also by tapping into talent full of merit and artistry. Omar proves opera doesn’t have to be the exclusive preserve of hoity-toity Europeans and Euro-Americans.

As Omar’s director, New Yorker Keneza Schall brings it all together, for a dazzling paean and ode to resistance, to defiance by staying true to one’s ancestral culture and faith, as well as with a sense of an individual self, rendering a breathtaking operatic experience that this South Seas wanderer is truly glad he didn’t miss due to visiting mutineer Fletcher Christian’s remote haven in the Pacific Islands.

Originally set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, LA Opera’s next production, Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, is about, among other things, a political prisoner. It premieres: Saturday, Nov. 19 at 7:30 p.m. and plays Thursday, Dec. 1, Wednesday, Dec. 7 and Saturday, Dec. 10 at 7:30 p.m.; and on Sundays, Nov. 27 and Dec. 4 at 2:00 p.m. at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles CA, 90012. Go here for tickets; (213)972-8001.