The story of the erudite 19th-century Islamic scholar Omar Ibn Said is clearly worthy of an opera, and in 2019 the Spoleto Festival USA and Carolina Performing Arts commissioned Rhiannon Giddens to undertake the task. Giddens wrote the libretto and with composer Michael Abels completed the score for their aptly titled opera Omar. Premiered at the 2022 Spoleto Festival, Omar has since been produced by four other companies, including San Francisco Opera, which opened its production earlier this month in San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House.
Omar was also awarded the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Music.
Giddens’ opera strives for epic scale, recounting Omar’s life from his comfortable early home life in West Africa to his capture and treacherous voyage through the Middle Passage; enslavement in the Carolinas that included resisting his proselytizing masters, and, finally, writing his biography in Arabic.
The young American tenor Jamez McCorkle has created a persuasive, sympathetic Omar, imbuing him with dignity that scrupulously avoided even a hint of self-righteousness. The fiery vocal command of McCorkle’s tenor triumphed in scenes of conflict, but that is not the only arrow in his quiver. He also displayed a resplendent, supple lyricism that shimmered in introspective moments. In a scene where he interprets the 23rd Psalm from an Arabic translation of the Bible, he revealed a quiet passion that proved emotionally overwhelming. This was his “Visa d’arte” moment, and the War Memorial audience held its collective breath.
Soprano Brittany Renee’s Julie, an enslaved woman who befriends Omar and encourages him to write his biography, rose above crowd scenes with her vocal brilliance and sense of rugged determination. In the roles of Omar’s two masters, Daniel Okulitch employed his rich baritone to impose his authority and sense of entitlement, especially in the role of Owen, the less abusive plantation owner who nevertheless attempts to convert Omar to Christianity. Although Omar’s mother Fatima, sung by Taylor Raven, is killed by slavers early in the opera, she appears to Omar in his dreams at crucial moments, giving him sage advice with her smooth, consoling mezzo-soprano.
Stage director Kaneza Schaal, who directed the Spoleto Festival premiere and returned to direct this production, kept the dramatic pulse steady and focused throughout Giddens’ detail rich ten scenes. Amy Rubin’s bold set design used fabric and color sumptuously. Large swaths of cloth filled the stage in several scenes, and in the opera’s opening scene, the prosperous West Africans sported bright-hued, flowing garments designed by April M. Hickman and Micheline Russell-Brown. Traditional Arabic script also played a significant role, sometimes scrolling larger than life across the scrim—right to left, of course—during stage action.
Giddens’ musical score proved surprisingly conventional, especially in its harmonic language. Woodwind solos in predictable harmonic minor modes frequently appeared, not unlike the musical chinoiserie in Puccini’s opera Turandot. John Kennedy, another key player from the Spoleto Festival premiere roster, led the robust San Francisco Opera Orchestra with welcome assurance, giving the singers an unusual level of support.
Motion pictures have given the antebellum South a false narrative that only white supremacists now find credible. Although Omar cannot by itself undo the historical damage done to that era during the last century, the opera’s authentic portrayal of a scholarly enslaved African man whose devout Muslim faith sustains him is a persuasive foray into a more truthful historical understanding of this portion of American history.
San Francisco Opera presented Rhiannon Giddens’ and Michael Abels’ “Omar” from November 5 through 21, 2023, at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. The performance on November 15 was attended for this review.