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LA Opera's 'Omar' Is A Powerful Story About Black Enslavement, From Black Artists

A photo of tenor Jamez McCorkle as Omar in LA Opera's 2022 West Coast premiere of "Omar." He is dressed in a white costume that has Arabic script written on it. He stands before a collage of images from the American Civil Rights movement.
Jamez McCorkle as Omar in LA Opera's 2022 West Coast premiere of "Omar"
(Cory Weaver
/
LA Opera)
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As the composer for director Jordan Peele’s horror films — Get Out, Us and Nope Michael Abelshas created music to match some very scary stories.

When he set down to score the new opera Omar, Abels faced a different kind of composing challenge: Unlike Peele’s fictional frights, the terror of this tale was completely real.

Now playing at LA Opera, Omaris based on the life of Omar ibn Said. An Islamic scholar, Omar was captured in what is now Senegal, packed into a slave ship that sailed across the Atlantic to South Carolina, where he was enslaved at age 37 for the rest of his life.

While a captive, Omar wrote several Arabic-language books and essays, including an autobiography that tells of his childhood, education, capture, enslavement, and coerced conversion to Christianity. Like Solomon Northup’s memoir, 12 Years a Slave(the basis of the Oscar-winning 2013 film), Omar’s autobiography is among the few first-person slavery accounts written by a literate captive.

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Omar began as a 2017 commission for singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens from the Spoleto performing arts festival in Charleston, South Carolina, the very city where Omar was sold into slavery in 1807.

As a solo artist and with her band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Giddens has written and performed blues, folk, country, gospel and jazz at the highest levels. Opera was not yet in her repertoire.

How 'Omar' Was Born

“She invited me to hear her perform at Disney Hall,” Abels, who composed the 2000 opera Homies and Popz, said of Giddens. “I instantly became a huge Rhiannon Giddens fan. I went backstage, and she said, ‘Do you want to write an opera with me?’ And I said, ‘Yes, absolutely. When do we start? What's it about?’”

Giddens wrote the opera’s libretto, while Abels and Giddens composed the music. Among the biggest challenges: Finding the opera’s language— both verbal and musical.

A photo of composer Michael Abels, dressed in a blue suit, gesturing with his hands.
"Omar" co-composer Michael Abels
(Todd-Robinson/LA Opera)

“Omar is someone who goes geographically from one place to another and yet brings his culture,” Abels said. “And that's what every enslaved person did. So, just as the character comes from one setting to another, you want to bring the characters music, and culture along with everything else that comes with them. So the music we did for Senegal is very Senegalese influenced, and also Islamic influenced, from the larger diaspora. But that music stays with Omar through the opera, regardless of his physical location.”

In the opera, one of Omar’s owners gives him a bible translated into Arabic and commands Omar to write, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Instead, Omar writes, “I want to go home.” The battle between Christianity and Islam animates much of the opera.

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The Influence Of Spirituals

In Omar’s first act, there’s a song that, at first, sounds very much like American gospel as the slaves work on various tasks. As the piece proceeds, the words “how long” become looser, starting to sound like “ha la,” which Omar hears as “Allah.”

“Something that's not really even discussed about enslavement was how people didn't speak the language,” Abels said.

“And they're not only in a foreign place, but they have no access to even communicate with people. And that mis-hearing that Omar has in the first act is crucial to understanding his journey and his character. So that's one thing like most spirituals: there's a hidden message in them.”

A man kneels, hands in prayer, surrounded by gigantic swooping pieces of fabric with Arabic words written on them
Another scene from the new opera, "Omar"
(LA Opera)

As I went into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to watch a dress rehearsal, I was struck by the makeup of the orchestra — almost all white — and the opera’s cast, almost all Black. Both Giddens and Abels identify as Black, too. That racial gulf exists among opera patrons, too: the audience is more than 80% white.

When Omar opens, about two dozen Black performers take the stage. It’s a startling — and long-overdue — sight.

“People who don't come to the opera have to understand that there's something where they might be able to see themselves represented, like this opera, for example,” Abels said. “I feel particularly excited when I talk to young people and I say, ‘No, you should come to the opera, I promise you, you will get something out of it.’ And I can say that sincerely because of Omar."

Omar is playing at the LA Opera through Nov. 13.

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