‘Omar,’ a unique opera drawn from a slave’s memoirs, comes to SF

‘Omar,’ a unique opera drawn from a slave’s memoirs, comes to SF

Jamez McCorkle talks about singing the title role of “Omar” with a mix of awe and admiration.

The American tenor has been center stage in the award-winning opera since its inception. Composed by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels, “Omar” premiered at the 2022 Spoleto Festival in South Carolina with McCorkle in the title role; he’s returned to it for multiple performances in Boston, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Now he’s heading a large cast as the opera, directed by Kaneza Schaal and conducted by John Kennedy, makes its much-anticipated Bay Area premiere at San Francisco Opera.

Awarded this year’s Pulitzer Prize for music, “Omar” is based on the 1831 autobiography of Omar ibn Said, a Muslim scholar born in 1770 in what is now Senegal. Enslaved and transported to the U.S. in 1807, Said spent five decades as a slave on a North Carolina plantation, where he wrote his autobiography — the only known slave narrative written in Arabic.

“What really connected me to him was his resiliency,” McCorkle explained, “his ability to maintain who he was through all of the pain he went through. That was the thing that struck me most about his character, and it made me feel I had to devote 100% to bringing his story to life without any reservations.”

For Abels, the acclaimed composer of scores for the Jordan Peele films “Get Out” and “Us,” Omar’s story was a revelation.

“That’s kind of the point,” he said, in a recent call from his Southern California studio. “Stories like this don’t get the historical focus they might, if all of our stories were told.”

Abels said it was Giddens, a native of North Carolina and an American music specialist, who was first approached by Spoleto with the idea for an Omar opera. “They said ‘we’ll find someone to write the libretto,’” Abels recalled, “and she said ‘no, actually I would prefer to write the libretto — but I would like a musical collaborator.’”

“She asked me,” he added, “and I said yes before I even knew what it was about.”

Abels and Giddens, perhaps best known as the singer for the Carolina Chocolate Drops, hadn’t yet worked together — or even met — but Abels was already a fan of her work. “Anyone who’s seen her perform live gets the depth of her artistry,” he said. (Note: Giddens and the Silk Road Ensemble will perform “American Railroad” at Cal Performances in Berkeley on Nov. 17; calperformances.org.)

At one of her concerts, Abels visited her backstage, and says they immediately agreed to work together. “We had no idea what that would look like, but it was a leap of faith for both of us. That was the key to why it was successful.”

In subsequent meetings, the work took shape. “In our first conversation, we agreed there shouldn’t be a banjo,” he notes — and they began to consider the breadth of American music. “Because we both love folk music and don’t see the distinctions in genres that so much of the marketing of music creates, that just felt natural to both of us.”

The finished score includes “spirituals, music that sounds kind of churchy, even operatic parts that sound deliberately Wagnerian,” he said. “And, of course, you can’t write an opera where part of the setting is in Charleston without acknowledging the harmonic language of ‘Porgy and Bess.’”

For Abels, winning the Pulitzer Prize was an unexpected honor — icing on the cake when “Omar” had already been so warmly received by audiences, many of whom, he said, have been first-time opera goers.

“It’s a piece that really touches people,” he said. “Ultimately, Rhiannon and I both believe that music and art should connect with people at an emotional and soul level. When you’re achieving that, it’s really gratifying.”

The power of Omar’s story, combined with the renown of Giddens and Abels, seems to have attracted new audiences in each of its previous outings. Asked if “Omar” is a force for change in the opera world, Abels says it just might be.

“If that’s true, I’m excited. In this opera, people have to think about the art form a little differently. And that’s huge.

“Right now there is an opening in the opera world — a lot of people of color being offered opportunities that weren’t available to us 10 years, 20 years ago. Whenever it happens, I’m for that. Either way, I think ‘Omar’ provides an example of what’s possible.”

McCorkle agrees. Although he has a full calendar going forward, he considers “Omar” a career highlight — and as opening night approaches, he hopes audiences will be moved by the work.

“I think there’s a huge percentage of people who have never set foot in an opera house who are coming to this show,” he said. “It’s somewhat indescribable how special this music is. It’s unlike anything you’ve heard on the operatic stage. You just need to hear it firsthand to believe it.”

Contact Georgia Rowe at growe@pacbell.net.


By Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels, presented by San Francisco Opera

When: Nov. 5-21

Where: War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

Tickets: $26-$426, also available to live=stream Nov. 11 ($27.50); sfopera.com.