SAN FRANCISCO – More and more, stupendous operas such as Omar, the 2023 Pulitzer Prize-winner, are taking us on real-life journeys through America, many of those journeys unspeakably sad yet somehow uplifting. These searing operatic travels are based on true stories and histories worth bringing to life, to the stage, and to our understanding.
Omar and The Central Park Five, another Black-focused opera that won a Pulitzer in 2020, have created musical and visual languages that expand opera’s voice and vocabulary, and shine a light on the survival of humanity despite bondage, extraordinary pain and injustice.
Omar is overwhelmingly beautiful, compelling, eye-opening and huge, though it has been called a “folk opera” (as was Porgy and Bess), in part due to its varied Black American music and lower-status characters (no kings and queens in these operas). In terms of scope, Omar has 12 principals and 32 choristers, which include 18 soloists, four dancers and two supernumeraries in this San Francisco Opera production at the War Memorial Opera House.
The 2-hour-and-50-minute two-act opera, including an intermission, is about 19th-century Islamic scholar, Omar ibn Said, who was a real man, if a somewhat artistically altered person in this opera. He was captured in Senegal in 1807, forced to travel in the hold of a slave ship through the Middle Passage, and sold into slavery in Charleston, S.C., the city where the opera premiered in 2022 at the Spoleto Festival USA. Nobody knows for sure, but historians estimate about 10 percent of slaves brought to the United States were Muslim, and many of them, like Omar, were educated and literate.
The main character, Omar–sung strongly and spiritually by tenor Jamez McCorkle, who easily dips into the baritone range–kept a diary and eventually “told his story,” writing his autobiography in Arabic. His book was the main source and inspiration for the opera that multi-talented mixed-race musician Rhiannon Giddens took on.
Though this is her first opera, Giddens, 46, has many talents. She is a Grammy Award-winner, an accomplished mezzo-soprano who has sung the role of Julia in Omar, a “roots music” historian and expert, a MacArthur fellowship winner, and now an opera composer/librettist. Omar shows she can write operatically with blues, jazz, bluegrass roots, gospel, folk, fiddle tunes and more — any kind of American music that springs from Black music, as most American music does.
Giddens mostly composed the opera on her banjo. In the midst of her work, she realized that she didn’t have the skills to write for a full orchestra, and asked composer Michael Abels, 61, also mixed-race (and best known for his soundtracks to the Jordan Peele films Get Out, Us and Nope) to help out. She stuck with writing for voices, and Abels composed for the 62-piece orchestra, studded with some African percussion and a few other African instruments, such as the kora. John Kennedy conducted the opera on Nov. 15, when I saw Omar.
The co-composers said they wanted the music to be accessible. It includes Protestant hymns, George Gershwin and Richard Wagner riffs, music of Senegal and the Muslim diaspora, and the various American genres mentioned earlier. The music is more than accessible: It is original, compelling, full of movement, variety and American and African motifs and themes. And in the end, it is astonishingly powerful, when cast members drift into the audience and stand in the five orchestra-level aisles and sing, a bit like a spread-out gospel choir, in this case, praising the spirit of Allah.
Though the opera does flash back to Omar’s African life where his parents are killed in tribal skirmishes (mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven sings the role of his mother, Fatima, who appears throughout the opera in dream sequences), the piece mostly focuses on Omar’s slave life and his enduring belief in Islam. “Tell your story, Omar, or they will never know,” is sung over and over – and it is the crux of the opera.
When he arrives in America, Omar is bought by a plantation owner named Johnson (sung steadfastly by bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch), who is a nasty guy. Omar runs away, ends up in jail in North Carolina after he hears from a newfound friend, Julie (luminous soprano Brittany Renee), that a kinder slave-owner resides in North Carolina. Omar is acquired by the marginally nicer master, Jim Owen, sung also by Okulitch, who has some respect for Omar but tries his hardest to convert him to Christianity. Owen insists that Omar wear an ill-fitting light blue vest (the same color as Owen’s coat) to demonstrate his Christian faith.
Omar is unwavering, and he fakes his Christianity. He sticks to his Muslim faith.
The music is mesmerizing and awakening at the same time, but the visuals are simply astounding. Kaneza Schaal’s stage direction and Christopher Myers’ production design make the most of them. At one point Fatima and her stunning costume soar 16 feet above the floor, with the skirt inspired by the Keith Haring/Grace Jones 1986 music video, “I’m not Perfect (But I’m Perfect for You).”
The voluminous skirt, like the rest of the costumes, is printed with words and symbols in Arabic, English, Nwet, Bamum and Vai, and one print features an X, the signature of an illiterate white woman. The costumes reflect the story’s power of language and its crossover of cultures. The clothes are a testament to the staying power of proud and enduring cultures forced to come to America; they leave colorless drab slave rags in the dust of the past.
Among the breathtaking scenic features are two trees made of cotton rope, one 31 feet tall, with the branches stretching 60 feet across the stage, connecting us all to our ancestry and roots, to one another, to our stories.
Streamers, scrims, arches and billowing drapes, especially the ones that Omar wrote on in the North Carolina jail after his escape, maintain an exotic word-orientated vibe. Kudos to set designer Amy Rubin, to costume designers April M. Hickman and Micheline Russell-Brown, and to many others who made this technically challenging piece so visually startling. Almost the entire cast and creative team were people of color.
I only disliked one thing about the opera: The very beginning and the very end, where Omar changes out of his modern-day American clothes, including an Alice in Chains t-shirt (reportedly one of McCorkle’s favorite hard-rock bands) into his African/Arabic/Muslim clothes, and then the other way around at the end, so he finishes the opera in that well-worn Alice in Chains t-shirt and basketball shorts. We’re supposed to connect the dots of the past to the present, but it was too obvious for me.
Omar is making its rounds, and since its Spoleto Festival debut in May 2022, it has appeared at Los Angeles Opera, at Boston Lyric Opera, at Carolina Performing Arts in Chapel Hill, N.C., and at the Ojai Festival in an abridged version, and then in November, in San Francisco. It will be in other places. Count on it. The momentum is undeniable. It’s a keeper.
A note on Black opera: Porgy and Bess was the first successful Black-focused American opera. It was originally performed in 1935 and set in Charleston, S.C. (as is Omar)–and it was written by white guys. Composer George Gershwin and lyricists DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin portrayed Catfish Row as poverty-stricken run-down tenement, populated with damaged, oppressed people. Its highly singable and memorable music has become part of the American Songbook, and a significant and often staged piece in the opera repertoire. Then again, not everyone liked it, including Black musicians like Duke Ellington, who wrote that “the music does not hitch with the mood and spirit of the story.” Still, Porgy and Bess has lasted for almost a century, but it is refreshing to see Black life portrayed in a more dignified version, as it is in Omar.