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Spoleto Festival USA Announces New Opera Based on the Life of a Slave

Half length formal portrait of "Uncle Moreau" elderly man seated wearingheadwrap, suit; left elbow rests on newel, cane in right hand
Portrait of Omar Ibn Said: Half length formal portrait of "Uncle Moreau" [Omar ibn Said]; elderly man seated wearingheadwrap, suit; left elbow rests on newel, cane in right hand

In the city where nearly half of all enslaved Africans were brought to this nation, Spoleto Festival USA will unveil a new opera based on the life of an African-Muslim slave.  His autobiography is believed to be the only surviving, unedited story written in Arabic in the United States.

Omar Ibn Said came to Charleston through Gadsden’s Wharf in 1807 and was sold as a slave.  He escaped his Charleston owner and fled to North Carolina where he was recaptured, jailed and resold.  He penned his autobiography in 1831.  His story, lost for decades and eventually held in private collections, was acquired by the Library of Congress two years ago.  It was recently translated into English.

“Ibn Said’s autobiography is an extraordinary work and his story is one that’s absolutely crucial to tell,” said Spoleto Festival USA General Director Nigel Redden in a statement.

“This opera gives us a way to look at Charleston in a more comprehensive way,” said Redden.  “In exploring Charleston’s history, we’re exploring  America’s history.”  The city will celebrate 350 years in 2020, when the new opera is revealed.

The opera is being co-commissioned and co-produced by Spoleto Festival USA and Carolina Performing Arts at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  It’s being written by Grammy award winning musician Rhiannon Giddens.

Giddens is known as a musical archaeologist who explores the legacy of African-American folk traditions.  She 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 can also add to the conversation of what’s going on now,” she said in statement.

The opera will premiere during the 2020 Festival (May 22 – June 7) in Charleston, opening at the College of Charleston Sottile Theatre.  It will then travel to Chapel Hill, North Carolina where it will be performed during the Carolina Performing Arts 2020-2021 season.