The debut of 'Omar,' a thoroughly American opera Composers Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels have brought a true story to the opera stage: the life of Omar Ibn Said, a Senegalese Muslim scholar who was enslaved and brought to the Carolinas.

The debut of 'Omar,' a thoroughly American opera

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A new opera tells a true story of a man who was taken from his home in Senegal and trafficked to the Carolinas. It premiered at the Spoleto Festival USA, less than a mile from the place where he was sold into slavery. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas has the story.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Julie, an enslaved Black woman, is a fictional character that Rhiannon Giddens created for this opera. When Julia first met the newly enslaved Omar, she tells him he reminded her strongly of someone else.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (Singing, as Julia) My daddy wore a cap like yours.

TSIOULCAS: The Opera "Omar" is a broadly American story. But history hangs particularly heavy and close in Charleston, S.C., where "Omar" had its debut in late May.


TSIOULCAS: The real man on whom this opera is based, Omar Ibn Said, was a Muslim man who came to Charleston like about 40% of other Africans who were forced into North America. More than two decades later, he wrote his autobiography, the only known surviving slave narrative written in Arabic.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: It was shocking I've never heard this story having lived the majority of my life in North Carolina.

TSIOULCAS: That's Rhiannon Giddens. She's best known as an American roots musician, a singer and songwriter who wields a mean banjo and makes her viola croon. She co-composed and wrote the libretto for "Omar." And she says...

GIDDENS: I guess I look for overlooked stories to tell.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing in non-English language).

TSIOULCAS: Said was a well-educated Fulani man and had studied the Quran intensely. At age 37, he was captured during a war and sold into slavery and endured the middle passage over what he called the big sea.


TSIOULCAS: Said escaped the first slaveholder but was captured again in North Carolina. While jailed there, he began writing on the walls in Arabic, the language of the Quran, and became an object of fascination to his second owner. He appears to have converted to Christianity. And he wrote his autobiography at his owner's behest, says composer Michael Abels. He co-composed the opera with Giddens, providing its lush orchestrations.

MICHAEL ABELS: On the one hand, while they had respect for his abilities, they certainly had no intention of ending his enslavement as a result of that. They were more interested in having him perform and having him convert to Christianity to make them feel better.


TSIOULCAS: Ala Alryyes is a professor of English at Queens College, the City University of New York. He also translated the real Omar ibn Said's autobiography from Arabic into English and was brought in as an adviser on the opera project. He says Said's work shows up the lie that enslaved Africans were ignorant and illiterate.

ALA ALRYYES: It demonstrates a cultural background and literacy that a slave brought with him to the United States. Our understanding of American slavery has been American-based and ignores the background that these enslaved persons brought with them from Africa, whether they were Muslim or not, whether they spoke Arabic or other languages.

TSIOULCAS: That autobiography was the inspiration for the opera, explains Michael Abels.

ABELS: The opera tells the story of his journey, but also his spiritual journey as he was confronted with the challenges of being enslaved and the challenge of being asked to give up his spiritual identity as well as his freedom.


TSIOULCAS: Hussein Rashid is a scholar specializing in Muslims in U.S. popular culture. Like Alryyes, he was an adviser on this opera. Rashid says, in his autobiography, Omar ibn Said offers some coded language. He points to one chapter from the Quran that Said quotes that addresses God's power and sovereignty.

HUSSEIN RASHID: The way I understand this is that this is Omar talking about being enslaved, recognizing that it is other human beings playing at power, playing at having serenity, playing at having authority over other human beings. And Omar is saying, no, you don't actually know what power is. You don't know what serenity is. You don't know where my allegiance is. And I think this is really a spiritual nourishment for Omar.


JAMEZ MCCORKLE: (As Omar, singing) I have a good master, I do. I have a great and holy master. He allowed me to write to you.

TSIOULCAS: Those sub-currents between faith, identity and language become the swirling substance of the opera. Omar's quest to preserve himself when every force connived to take away everything that belonged to him, that is the crux of this project, says the opera's director, Kaneza Schaal.

KANEZA SCHAAL: I'm interested in the contest of languages in Omar's life - the spiritual languages, the spoken languages, the material languages, the cultural languages - and ultimately, how he ends up holding all of those languages simultaneously.


MCCORKLE: (As Omar, singing in non-English language). They've haunted me.

TSIOULCAS: Rhiannon Giddens says Said's life story presented lots of creative opportunities to flow between musical languages as well. Giddens composed most of the music for "Omar" on the banjo and integrated her deep knowledge of folk music into the opera.


GIDDENS: What I do is bring in these connections to deep, deep vernacular and folk traditions from American culture. And I'm really hoping that it also adds to the narrative of who gets to be called a composer, who gets to create these large-scale works.

TSIOULCAS: The opera stage is a space that still often leaves out Black creators and stories of Black experience. Giddens hopes that "Omar" forms a pathway. And it looks as if she's succeeded. "Omar's" already scheduled to be staged at other opera companies across the United States, including in North Carolina, close to where the real-life Omar ibn Said was enslaved for 50 years.

Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) May your soul...

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