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Omar Omar

Composed by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels

Conducted by Kazem Abdullah

October 22 – November 13

At the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

They could imprison his body. But not his spirit.

In 1807, a 37-year-old scholar living in West Africa was captured and forced aboard a slave ship bound for Charleston, South Carolina. Omar Ibn Said's life and Muslim faith are remembered and retold in this inspirational West Coast premiere inspired by his remarkable 1831 autobiography (the only known surviving American slave narrative written in Arabic).

Set in the shifting darkness of memory and imagination, Omar follows his compelling journey from a peaceful life in his homeland to enslavement in a violent, foreign world. Lost in the wilderness of his thoughts and his stolen life, he's haunted by memories of his family and the people he encounters along the way. Through it all, he somehow remains true to himself and his faith, against all odds. The luminous score—composed by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels—incorporates distinctive West African traditions with traditional opera instrumentation.

Tenor Jamez McCorkle makes his company debut in the title role, with bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch in a double role as two very different slave masters. Norman Garrett makes his company debut as Omar's brother, with Barry Banks as the auctioneer and Jacqueline Echols as Julie, an enslaved woman who gives Omar the key to a better life.

Learn more about the creative process of Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels in this New York Times article.

Sung in English with English subtitles.

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“I am still pondering the artistic miracle that unfolded before me... a showcase for the musical genius of Rhiannon Giddens.”

New York TimesMargaret Renkl

Listen to Rhiannon Giddens perform "Julie's Aria" from Omar below:

Cast

Omar
Jamez McCorkle
Julie
Jacqueline Echols
Johnson / Owen
Daniel Okulitch
Katie Ellen
Briana Hunter
Auctioneer / Taylor
Barry Banks
Omar's Brother
Norman Garrett

Creative Team

Composer/Librettist
Rhiannon Giddens
Composer
Michael Abels
Conductor
Kazem Abdullah
Director
Kaneza Schaal
Production Designer
Christopher Myers
Scenery
Amy Rubin
Costumes
April M. Hickman
Costumes
Micheline Russell-Brown
Lighting
Lucrecia Briceno
Projections
Joshua Higgason

Read the synopsis

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Synopsis

Act One 
Scene One: 1806, Futa Toro (in West Africa) 
Omar Ibn Said chants verses from the Quran. Omar’s mother and a chorus of villagers pray to Allah, asking for guidance and affirming their allegiance. Worried that his village will fall prey to the slavers who have pillaged the region, Omar's brother has been negotiating for the safety of his people. Omar's mother doesn’t trust the “newcomers,” while Omar himself is willing to let Allah determine his fate. 

When Omar’s brother discovers that he has been deceived, he warns his family to flee the coming raiders. But it is too late. Warriors overrun the compound and begin taking people prisoner. Omar and his mother are separated in the chaos; she is killed and he is dragged away.  

Scene Two: The Middle Passage 
Omar is shackled closely together with the other prisoners in the cramped cargo hold of a slave ship. They are watched over by two white slavers, who complain about the financial impact of the high death rate of their prisoners. The desperate prisoners pray to survive their horrendous ordeal. 

Scene Three: The Charleston Slave Market 
A white man has kidnapped the enslaved woman Julie and dragged her into town for sale. She plans to escape him and return back to the Owens plantation in Fayetteville, which seems like a better option than the uncertain future that awaits her at the slave market. She tries to explain to Omar (who doesn’t understand English) that if he should ever run away, he should try to find the Owens farm. 

The slave auction begins. A family of three is split apart. When Omar is led to the podium, he sees that Julie has managed to get free of her bonds. To distract the crowd, he falls to his knees in prayer; Julie is able to escape unnoticed. Omar is sold to Johnson, a plantation owner. 

Scene Four: Johnson’s plantation 
Enslaved workers sing as they labor at their tasks. Johnson shouts at one of the men and strikes him. Johnson then sends Omar to pick cotton in the fields. 

Scene Five: Johnson’s plantation, five months later 
The spirit of Omar’s mother watches over him. Completely overwhelmed by his labors, Omar flees his terrible life on the Johnson plantation and heads in search of Fayetteville. 

Act Two 
Scene One: Fayetteville County Jail 
Omar has been captured as a runaway slave. He prays and writes in Arabic on the walls of the cell, which catches the attention of the townspeople. The plantation owner Owen is urged by his young daughter to buy Omar. The devout Owen sees this as an opportunity to convert Omar to Christianity. 

Scene Two: Owen’s plantation 
The enslaved workers are nearly done for the day. One of them, Katie Ellen, is surprised that Julie has returned to the plantation after her kidnapping. Owen introduces Omar to the other enslaved workers, who welcome him. Julie is impressed that Omar has followed her advice. She tells him that her father used to wear a cap like Omar’s. 

Scene Three: Owen’s study 
Owen and his friend Taylor, a visitor from the North, are excited about the prospect of converting Omar to their faith. Owen gives Omar a Bible written in Arabic and asks him to write the Lord’s Prayer in that language. Omar pretends to do so, while actually writing the words “I want to go home.” 

Scene Four: Owen’s plantation 
As Omar reads his new Bible, he reflects on his life journey. Julie is fascinated that Omar can read and write. She encourages him to write a book. 

Scene Five: Owen’s plantation (finale) 
The spirit of Omar’s mother joins Julie in urging Omar to write about his experiences and his faith. Omar gives praise to Allah for the beauty and goodness of the world. 

West Coast premiere

Sung in English with English subtitles.

The estimated running time is two hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission.

Omar is co-produced by Spoleto Festival USA and Carolina Performing Arts at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and co-commissioned by LA Opera, Spoleto Festival USA, Carolina Performing Arts, Boston Lyric Opera, San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Omar is inspired by Dr. Ala Alryyes's translation of Omar Ibn Said's autobiography in his book A Muslim American Slave: The Life of Omar Ibn Said.

Artwork for Omar
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