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Spoleto's 'Omar' profound and healing say reviews

Understudy for Omar, George Johnson, performs during dress rehearsal a the Sottile Theater in Charleston, S.C. May 26, 2022
Victoria Hansen
SC Public Radio
Omar understudy George Johnson performs during Spoleto Festival USA dress rehearsal at the Sottile Theater in Charleston, S.C. May 26, 2022

At the Sottile Theater in Charleston, the director of an opera on the verge of its world premiere is barely visible beneath the dimmed lights. But Kaneza Schaal is clearly protective of the work. She quietly gives cues during a technical run-through as the media takes a tour.

"It's Holy"

Schaal knows the debut of ‘Omar’ has twice been postponed because of the pandemic. And, its inspiration is the only one of its kind in America, an autobiography written by a slave in Arabic.

“Here we have this text from Omar, a man who was literate before he became enslaved,” says Schaal. “It’s holy.”

Omar ibn Said was 37 years-old when he was taken from his village in West Africa, packed on a ship and sold in Charleston just blocks from the theater where his story is being told this week as part of the 46th season of Spoleto Festival USA. The year was 1807, just before the ban on the transatlantic slave trade.

Rhiannon Giddens was commissioned to create the opera based on Said’s story. But she’d never heard of him. His manuscript had been in the hands of a private owner until the Library of Congress acquired and published it online in 2019.

“Going through Omar’s words, you realize very quickly where his communication is,” says Giddens. “It’s in his choices of scripture.”

Giddens says the musical version of Omar’s story is a spiritual one, about a man who holds onto his Muslim faith despite being sold by Christians who later try to convert him. She co-composed it with Michael Abels, well known for his scores for films like “Get Out” and “Us”.

Omar meets Julie at the Charleston slave market during act one of dress rehearsal at the Sottile Theater. May 26, 2022.
Victoria Hansen
South Carolina Public Radio
Omar performed by Jamez McCorkle (seated left) meets Julie performed by Laquita Mitchell (right) at the Charleston slave market during dress rehearsal at the Sottile Theater. May 26, 2022.

The opera opened May 27th to strong reviews. The New York Times called it, “a sweeping achievement.” The Atlanta-Journal Constitution’s headline read, “profound and moving.” The Post and Courier in Charleston said, “the clear and present power of ‘Omar’ to heal a country whose stories are not fully told should make this a prominent part of the operatic canon.”

Like Giddens, Abels had not heard of ‘Omar’ until agreeing to take part in the new opera. But, he too, was inspired.

“For me, I think it’s his perseverance, “says Abels. “When you learn his story, you realize the hardships he went through and how he managed to retain his soul and identity through his entire lifetime.”

Randolph Linsly Simpson African-American Collection, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University
Portrait of of Omar Ibn Said in 1850.

Together, Abels and Giddens created a musical depiction of Omar’s journey. They show how he struggled during a transatlantic trip, was sold in Charleston to a cruel master and eventual fled to North Carolina where it was discovered he could read and write. It was there, Omar was turned over to a plantation owner who showed him mercy.

“One of the things that allowed him to write his autobiography in the first place was this idea that he was somehow more human and more worthy because he was literate,” says Giddens.

But the new owner wanted something in return from Omar. He demanded the man who’d already lost his family, his native language and his freedom also surrender his Muslim faith and become Christian. Historians estimate as many as one third of enslaved Africans in America were Muslim.

While Omar appeared to accept Christianity in his autobiography, he continued to quote the Quran. His master could not read Arabic and did not understand the passages Omar chose while still enslaved took issue with one human owning another.

It is a rare account.

“That’s what makes this story remarkable is that we have a piece of him that we can do something with,” says Giddens.

“But there are countless stories of people who were brought over here who we won’t ever know their brilliance.”

Millions of Africans were sold during the Atlantic Slave Trade and forbidden from learning how to read or write. They could not share their stories of being robbed of their freedom and history, or the lives they once knew.

Victoria Hansen is our Lowcountry connection covering the Charleston community, a city she knows well. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms and has worked as a broadcast journalist for more than 20 years. Her first reporting job brought her to Charleston where she covered local and national stories like the Susan Smith murder trial and the arrival of the Citadel’s first female cadet.