A New Opera by Grammy Award-Winner Rhiannon Giddens Taps into a Largely Untold Story of Charleston and the American South
On the heels of a successful 2019 season, Spoleto Festival USA announces its commission of a new full-length opera by MacArthur Fellow and Grammy Award-winner Rhiannon Giddens, based on the life and autobiography of Omar Ibn Said—an enslaved Muslim-African man who was brought to Charleston in 1807.
The opera, Omar, will have its world premiere during the 2020 Festival (May 22 – June 7), where it will re-open the College of Charleston Sottile Theatre following its renovation.
Cast includes: Jamez McCorkle in the title role of Omar Ibn Said, Daniel Okulitch as the Master, Laquita Mitchell as Julie, Cheryse McLeod Lewis, Catherine Anne Daniel, Adam Klein, Ashley Emerson, Michael Redding, and and Anthony Webb.
Composed by Rhiannon Giddens Co-composed by Michael Abels Libretto by Rhiannon Giddens Conducted by John Kennedy Directed by Charlotte Brathwaite
A voice forgotten no more
In 1807, a 37-year-old scholar living in West Africa was captured and forced to board a ship bound for Charleston, South Carolina―the site of his enslavement and sale. Omar Ibn Said’s life and Muslim faith, recorded in his autobiography from 1831, are remembered and retold in this compelling new American opera.
North Carolina-native Rhiannon Giddens has made a name for herself excavating unsung historical black narratives and turning them into folk ballads―purposeful work that has placed her on countless stages and resulted in a long list of accolades, including a Grammy Award and MacArthur Fellowship. Collaborating with renowned composer Michael Abels (Get Out), Giddens melds her archaeological lens and operatic background in this world premiere.
Sung in English with English supertitles.
Please note: There is a 6 ticket limit per purchase for Omar. Tickets available to the public on Wednesday, January 15, at 10:00am EST. Prices range from $50 to $150.
843) 579-3100 Monday through Saturday, 10:00am – 6:00pm EST
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ABOUT THE OPERA
Who Was Omar Ibn Said?
Omar Ibn Said was an enslaved Muslim-African man who was brought to Charleston in 1807. The opera’s story traces his spiritual journey from Africa to his capture and enslavement in the Carolinas. Much of what we know about Ibn Said comes from his autobiography, which he penned in Arabic in 1831. To create the opera, Giddens has also conducted extensive research and studied with numerous religious leaders and scholars to create a work that is historically and religiously informed and to augment parts of Ibn Said’s narrative that are unknown.
The opera opens in what would today be considered Senegal, where Omar Ibn Said was a member of the Fula ethnic group of West Africa (a region extending between Senegal and Nigeria). Born around 1770 and a scholar in his homeland, Ibn Said was captured at age 37 and transported to Charleston’s Gadsden’s Wharf in 1807—a point of entry for nearly half of all Africans forced to North America. Ibn Said arrived in 1807; by 1808—when the importation of slaves was banned—more than 100,000 West Africans had been brought through Gadsden’s Wharf. Today, as many as 60 percent of African-Americans are able to trace their roots to Charleston.
Upon arrival in the United States, Ibn Said was sold to a Charlestonian, a man called “Johnson” who he described as particularly cruel. A month later, Ibn Said escaped and fled to North Carolina, where he subsequently was recaptured and sent to jail in Fayetteville. He spent 16 days in jail, where he was discovered writing in Arabic on the walls of his jail cell. Eventually, he was purchased and taken into the household of Jim Owen and his brother John Owen, the Governor of North Carolina (1828-1830) with whom Ibn Said remained until his death in his late 80s.
Ibn Said penned his autobiography in Arabic in 1831, about the time he was 61 years old. It is considered the only surviving, unedited autobiography of a Muslim slave written in Arabic in the United States. In 2017, Ibn Said’s work was acquired by the Library of Congress, which translated it into English and later digitized the original as part of a 42-piece collection of documents, letters, and newspaper clippings. The Library of Congress notes several reasons for the collection’s historical magnitude:
Omar Ibn Said’s autobiography is the only known extant autobiography of a slave written in Arabic in America. The importance of this lies in the fact that such a biography was not edited by Omar Ibn Said’s owner, as those of other slaves written in English were, and is therefore surmised to be more authentic. Second, it is an important document that attests to the high level of education, and the long tradition of a written culture that existed in Africa at the time. It also reveals that many Africans who were brought to the United States as slaves were followers of Islam, an Abrahamic and monotheistic faith. Such documentation counteracts prior assumptions of African life and culture.
WHY AN OPERA?
Spoleto Festival USA is deeply committed to telling Ibn Said’s story. “According to some scholars, as many as 30 percent of the enslaved Africans who arrived in the colonies and subsequently in the United States were Muslim, which is a largely unexplored truth in the modern discussions of slavery in the South,” says Spoleto’s General Director Nigel Redden. “But Ibn Said is not a number—he’s a man who had feelings, a history, and a right to life that was taken from him.” Exploring Ibn Said’s story allows viewers to see the life of an enslaved man in the 19th century as an individual rather than one of an undifferentiated group of people.
Watch this student-produced documentary, “The Life of Omar Ibn Said,” created by students of Richard Wright Public Charter School for Journalism and Media Arts surrounding the digitization and preservation of the autobiography.
ABOUT THE COMPOSER
What is Rhiannon 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.
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