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A new full-length opera by Rhiannon Giddens, based on the life and autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, will receive its world premiere at next year's Spoleto Festival, which will be held May 22-June 7, 2020. During the Festival, which co-commissioned the opera, the production will reopen the College of Charleston Sottile Theatre after its renovation, after which it will travel to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for performances at co-commissioner/co-producer Carolina Performing Arts during its 2020-21 season.
A musical archaeologist known for exploring the legacy of African-American folk traditions, honoring marginalized artists, and drawing from historical documents to create original material, Rhiannon Giddens also studied opera and vocal performance at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.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," she says, "This is a story that hasn't been represented in the operatic world—or in any world."
Opening in Senegal, the opera's narrative traces Omar Ibn Said's spiritual journey from his life in West Africa to his capture and enslavement in the Carolinas. At age 37, he was transported to Charleston's Gadsden's Warf in 1807—the port where more than 100,000 West Africans were brought to America
before the importation of slaves was banned in 1808. Today, as many as 60 percent of African-Americans are able to trace their roots to Charleston. "This opera gives us a way to look at Charleston in a more comprehensive way," says Festival General Director
Nigel Redden. "And in exploring Charleston's history, we're exploring America's history."
"Ibn Said's autobiography is an extraordinary work, and his story is one that's absolutely crucial to tell," Redden continues. "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. 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.
Upon arrival in the United States, Ibn Said was sold to a Charlestonian, but escaped and fled to North Carolina, where he was recaptured, sent to jail, and then resold to James
Owen, the brother of one of the state's governors. Ibn Said penned his autobiography in Arabic in 1831. It is considered the only surviving, unedited autobiography of a Muslim slave written in Arabic in the United States. In 2017, the work—which had spent decades unaccounted for and then years in private collections—was acquired by the Library of Congress and earlier this year was translated into English and digitized as part of a collection of 42 documents, letters, and newspaper clippings surrounding the original manuscript.
To create the opera's libretto, Giddens has carried out extensive research and studied with numerous religious leaders and scholars, including Ayla Amon of the Smithsonian National
Museum of African American History and Culture. The opera will explore the themes of religion, spirituality, and redemption, following Ibn Said's experience as an enslaved Muslim in a foreign and often horrific environment. Musically, the work incorporates West-African traditions with conventional Western opera instrumentation. It is composed for a cast of seven, small chorus, and orchestra, and the work will be conducted by Festival Resident Conductor and Director
of Orchestral Activities John Kennedy. Michael Abels, an American composer who has written the music for such films as Get Out (2017) and Us (2019), is working closely with Giddens to develop the score. "In telling Omar's story with the orchestra, it's crucial that there are elements that represent him culturally, with Arabic and African influences," says Abels. "There will be some instrumentation and tonality that honor those cultures and bring them into the opera house. Opera can address stories and the human condition in a way virtually no other art form can. We're in a particular place in history where religion is being used to blame, separate, and isolate people from one another. This story is a perfect chance to put that conflict onstage and allow people to see it in ways that can be healing and transcendent of personal differences."
Award-winning director Charlotte
Brathwaite has joined in the opera's creation. "When we speak of 'slaves,' we often neglect to think of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, scholars, doctors, teachers, healers—human begins with full lives," she says. "But there were people who could read and write, people with deep connections to traditions and culture, and people who felt—despite their physical shackles—a deep sense of pride. I want to create a world which celebrates Ibn Said's fight to hold on to his humanity at all costs and his enduring determination to throw off the chains of mental slavery. I want to create a production that acknowledges his pain and inspires with his strength."
Playing the role of Omar Ibn Said is American tenor Jamez McCorkle, who will return to Spoleto Festival USA for the first time since his debut as Lensky in Spoleto's 2017 production of Eugene Onegin. Playing the roles of Omar Ibn Said's two owners—both in Charleston, SC, and in Fayetteville, NC—will be baritone Daniel
Okulitch, who will make his Spoleto Festival USA debut. Additional casting will follow.
This opera was commissioned with support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust, and OPERA America's Opera Grants for Female Composers program, supported by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation. A forthcoming opera development workshop is made possible through the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Co-commissioner/co-producer Carolina Performing Arts' participation in this project is made possible through the support of the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust.
S. Kenan Institute
for the Arts is partnering on far-reaching education and outreach endeavors in order to connect Spoleto and this opera with Charleston schools and community organizations. A role created within the Festival's full-time staff will ensure robust programming takes place in the region throughout the 2019-20 school year. The material created by these education and outreach endeavors will subsequently be used by Carolina Performing Arts.
The full season of Spoleto Festival USA will be announced in January 2020, with tickets on sale to the public later that month; find details at spoletousa.org.