Before and during the American Civil War, anti-literacy laws suppressed many of the individual stories of Black people enslaved in the United States, making oral history a critical medium for Black history during that time. A rare exception is the writings of Muslim scholar Omar ibn Said. Having been captured from his home Senegal, Said’s autobiography details the brutal realities of chattel slavery, and within his story are the reflections of many others.
With their new opera, Omar, Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels bring Said’s story full circle by transforming his text into an oral history embellished with a musically rich backdrop. After a world premiere run at Spoleto Festival USA 2022, LA Opera and director Kaneza Schaal staged the west coast premiere, running October 22 – November 13 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
The score is a triumph in its ability to capture a blend of cultures and styles: first with influences from Said’s native Senegal, and later with the spirituals and folk songs originated by enslaved Black people. Both the chorus and the orchestra (led by Kazem Abdullah) serve as a canvas on which Said’s story is painted, allowing the musical styles that resonate most with his journey to shine through. Connecting the music of the Muslim and Black diasporas are melismas, a technique involving several notes sung on one syllable, and this seamless transition between musical cultures parallels Said’s physical journey across the Atlantic. Throughout, the chorus demonstrated unwavering virtuosity, unfazed by complicated runs that could easily fall apart.
However, the music is not the only way Said’s story is centered in this production. The visual presence of Arabic handwriting in the sets and costumes reiterate the significance of Said’s culture and faith. While a few first-hand writings from enslaved people exist, Said’s remains the only known account written in Arabic, defining another layer of the infinite experiences and individual stories we may never hear.
In the title role, tenor Jamez McCorkle captured Said’s perplexity and despair as an outsider, unable to speak the language or practice his faith in his new, unfamiliar conditions. McCorkle’s performance was both raw and gripping in its depiction of the fear and grief that plagued Said’s experience in America. In a particularly harrowing moment, the low strings rumble while the violins play a sinewy ascending melody, signifying impending doom as Said suffers the wrath of his enslaver, Johnson (Daniel Okulitch).
Throughout these hardships, Said remains steadfast in his Muslim faith, which catches the attention of another enslaver, Owen (also played by Okulitch). Owen is a Christian — or the version of Christian that allowed him and many others to justify their role in the institution of slavery. While Said’s faith gives him strength in the face of adversity, Owen’s faith gives him an insufferable savior complex.
Dubbed by many of his captives — and eventually Said himself — as a “good master,” Owen’s character reveals how troubling narratives meant to absolve enslavers of wrongdoing were at times adopted by those they enslaved. In the context of Omar, this is a complex issue for the audience to grapple with. The concept of a “good master” is an oxymoronic farce that has been used to downplay the impact of one of the largest and most egregious human rights violations in history. Why, then, were the very people who suffered the most from the institution of slavery also bolstering this phrase?
The answer to this question is something we will likely never completely understand, but we do get a glimpse into why this may be. A key tactic in suppressing any notion of freedom was to convince the enslaved that life was exactly as it was meant to be — that there was no such thing as growth and prosperity for Black people. And while there were plenty who proved that idea wrong, others were never given the opportunity to learn or imagine a life beyond what they knew in captivity.
According to Julie (Jacqueline Echols), a woman Said befriends on Owen’s plantation, having a “good master” is the difference between “waiting to go and desperate to go.” That line is a heartbreaking reality to digest — that these were the two options people were forced to weigh.
The story of Omar ibn Said is an uncommon one in the context of opera. It is fitting, then, that LA Opera’s production featured several debuts both onstage and off, including McCorkle in the title role, Giddens as composer/librettist, Schaal as director, and several costume and set designers who transformed Said’s life into a visually stunning experience. The incorporation of new voices is undoubtedly what made Omar a success; the talent, hard work, and perspective that went into the production paid off not only in the final product, but in its impact.
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