The opera “Omar”, whose world premiere took place at Charleston, South Carolina’s Spoleto Festival only a year and a half ago, proved to be one of the most exciting 21st century operatic works to be performed so far by the San Francisco Opera.
The opera is loosely based on the life of the enslaved Muslim, Omar ibn Said. He was a member of a nomadic West African tribe that had been converted to Islam nine centuries before Omar’s birth. Omar was trained from age 12 as an Islamic scholar, and was fluent in spoken and written Arabic. Captured at age 37 by slavers and sold to American plantation owners, it is Omar’s prolific output of Arabic works (now in the Smithsonian Institution), written while in slavery, that has made his story so unique and profoundly absorbing
Rhiannon Giddens’ and Michael Abels’ Operatic Composition and Rhiannon Giddens’ Libretto
The opera “Omar”, co-commissioned by the San Francisco Opera in league with six other American operatic companies, is the work of two “co-composers”, the multi-talented musicians, Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels.
[Below: Co-composer and librettist Rhiannon Giddens; edited image, based on an Ebru Yildiz photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Both have professional backgrounds atypical of virtually all other opera composers. Their wide-ranging experience with diverse musical genres include Abels’ scores for Hollywood films and Giddens’ wide-ranging musical accmplishments, including bluegrass and folk music. Giddens has performed at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry as a member of a trio of artists continuing the Black string band traditions that predate the Civil War.
[Below: Co-composer Michael Abels; edited image, based on an Eric Schwabel photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Jointly, Giddens and Abels have produced an opera, whose remarkable libretto is matched with beautiful vocal writing and superb, brilliantly rhythmic and melodic orchestration.
Jamez McCorkle’s Omar
Louisiana lyric tenor Jamez McCorkle proved to a be dramatically confident Omar. Onstage most of the performance, McCorkle, through Omar’s appeals to Allah and his resignation to his fate (“The whirlwind has me”) effectively conveyed the humanity of a soul existing in an inhumane world.
McCorkle’s repertory confirms a voice with the vocal flexibility to perform Tamino in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” and the power to sing the role of Bacchus in Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos”. His performance as Omar demonstrated his vocal expressiveness and security.
[Below: Jamez McCorkle as Omar; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Brittany Renee’s Julie
Minnesota soprano Brittany Renee displayed a vocally expressive voice of inherent beauty, incorporating a soft, beautiful vibrato. Renee’s artistry showed brilliantly in Julie’s affecting aria My Daddy Wore a Cap Like Yours, when Julie recognized that Omar is wearing a Muslim prayer-cap.
It is the character Julie that persuades Omar to escape the harsh Charleston environment to Fayetteville, North Carolina and to seek the Owen plantation there.
[Below: Brittany Renee as Julie; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Taylor Raven’s Fatima
Mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven, herself a native of the Fayetteville region of North Carolina in which the opera’s second act is centered, performed the role of Omar’s mother Fatima with graceful poise. Although Fatima is is killed by slavers in the first scene, Raven’s Fatima reappears periodically.
[Below: Taylor Raven as Omar’s mother Fatima; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Raven made her San Francisco Opera debut in a world premiere the previous season [World Premiere Run Review: Adams’ “Antony and Cleopatra” – San Francisco Opera, September 18, 2022], having previously performed with distinction in such roles as Annio at the Los Angeles Opera [Review: Ovations for L. A. Opera’s “Clemency of Titus”: Impressive Singing, Stylish New Production, March 2, 2019]
Daniel Okulitch’s Johnson/Owen, Barry Banks’ Auctioneer/Taylor and Laura Krumm’s Eliza
Canadian baritone Daniel Okulitch and British tenor Barry Banks each portrayed two characters, one villainous, one more sympathetic. At a slave auction in Charleston, Banks was the Slave Auctioneer and Okulitch the mean-spirited slaveowner Johnson. Both artists performed characters in the Fayetteville scenes, Okulitch as Owen and Banks as Taylor, who, even though part of a slaveowning society, did not share Johnson’s inhumanity.
[Below: Omar (Jamez McCorkle, front) stands before the image of an escaping slave; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
I have long admired Okulitch’s ability to create vivid characters, in operas from the late 20th and early 21st centuries [Review: Loving “The Last Savage”: Over the Top Menotti Charms at Santa Fe Opera – August 5, 2011] and [Review: Dissecting “The Fly” – the American Premiere of Shore’s Opera, Los Angeles Opera, September 7, 2008] and [World Premiere Review: “JFK”, a Fort Worth Fantasy – April 23, 2016], as well as more traditional operatic fare [Review: Okulitch, Ketelsen Star in Santa Fe Opera’s New “Don Giovanni”, July 2, 2016].
Barry Banks’ roles are similarly rich and varied, with a mix of new roles such as Hades [World Premiere Review: Matthew Aucoin’s “Eurydice” at the Los Angeles Opera, February 1, 2020], with roles as varied as Tonio [Review: Claycomb, Podles, Banks Shine in Houston Grand Opera “Fille du Regiment” – November 3, 2007], the Astrologer [Review: Santa Fe Opera’s Glistening “Golden Cockerel” Starring Venera Gimadieva – July 28, 2017] and Truffaldino [Review: Opera Philadelphia’s Richly Melodic, Laugh-filled “Love for Three Oranges” – September 20, 2019].
Although a smaller role, Iowa mezzo-soprano Laura Krumm’s character Eliza serves a very important function in this opera. Eliza convinces her father, Owen, to obtain Omar for his own plantation, which results in the Omar’s opportunity to secure his place in history.
[Below: Eliza (Laura Krumm, right) convinces her father, Owen (Daniel Okulitch, left) to add another person to his plantation as Taylor (Barry Banks, center) looks on in approval; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Earlier, Krumm was impressive in one of the most interesting comprimario roles in Czech opera, the Kitchen Boy in “Rusalka” [Review: “Rusalka”- Beautiful Singing, Insightful Drama – An Opera “Not to be Missed” – San Francisco Opera, June 16, 2019].
Norman Garrett’s Abdul/Abe, Edward Graves’ Amoudou, Calvin Griffin’s OlufemiK, Kenneth Overton’s Suleiman and Other Cast Members
Four smaller roles in the opera were assumed by artists on whose operatic performances at San Francisco Opera, Santa Fe Opera and New York’s Glimmerglass Festival, I have reported.
Texas baritone Norman Garrett made a forceful impression as Abdul. Attempting to guide slave traders away from his own tribal community and towards others, Abdul sadly discovered the perils of trying to negotiate with evil forces. Garrett also performed the role of Abe.
[Below: Norman Garrett as Omar’s brother Abdul; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Elsewhere, Garrett’s dramatic baritone voice had been enlisted for a strong performance as the villainous Crown [Review: Glimmerglass Festival “Porgy and Bess”: Ngqungwana, Trevigne Lead Strong Cast for New Zambello Production – July 13, 2017].
Ohio bass-baritone Calvin Griffin was Olufemi. I have followed Griffin’s career ever since he was an apprentice artist at Santa Fe Opera in 2014 and 2015 and a Glimmerglass Festival young artist in 2016 and 2017. His Glimmerglass role as Elviro was especially noteworthy [Review: An Elegantly Performed Glimmerglass Festival “Xerxes” – July 15, 2017].
Maryland tenor Edward Graves was Amadou. I have seen Graves’ performances during his two year San Francisco Opera Adler Fellowship in Wagner’s “Lohengrin”, Verdi’s ‘Il Trovatore” and “La Traviata”, and three roles at the 2019 Glimmerglass Festival,
Pennsylvania baritone Kenneth Overton was Suleiman. I have cited his previous appearances at San Francisco Opera in 2008 (George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”) 2010 (Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West”) and 2019 (Britten’s “Billy Budd”).
New Jersey mezzo-soprano (and former Washington National Opera Cafritz Young Artist) Rehanna Thelwell was Kobe Ellen and a Caller.
New York choreographer Kiara Benn was the creative force behind the opera’s frequent dance sequences. Dancer Jermaine McGhee appeared at several points in the opera bedecked in a colorful costume as an Ancestral Figure.
Other featured dancers included Illinois dancer James Johnson, Wisconsin dancer Marianna Locklear, California dancer Carol Martin and California dancer Micah Mock.
[Below: dancers, from left, are James Johnson, Micah Mock, Coral Martin and Marlayna Locklear; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Co-composer Giddens has described the importance of square dancing in North Carolina’s social history. Significantly, the opera incorporates lively sequences that underscore Giddens’ premise. The dances further evoke memories of Floyd’s opera “Susannah” [Review: Racette, Aceto, Jovanovich in Brilliant New Production of “Susannah” – San Francisco Opera, September 6, 2014]. Most of “Omar” and all of “Susannah” take place in the Eastern region of America’s Old South.
San Francisco Opera’s dance master is Irish choreographer Colm Seery.
“Omar’s” Chorus Soloists
A mix of artists represent both the San Francisco Opera regular and extra choruses and visiting artists. Pennsylvania Chorus Master John Keene heads San Francisco Opera’s Regular and Extra Choruses
The “Omar” chorus members are often onstage, sometimes representing West African or slave populations.
Visiting artists include California tenor Christopher Craig, California tenor John Fluker, New York basso cantante Earl Hazell, Pennsylvania tenor Ernest C. Jackson, Jr., California mezzo-soprano Jessica-Elizabeth, California mezzo-soprano Joanna Lynn-Jacobs, California soprano Thalia Moore and Texas soprano Sydnee Turrentine-Johnson
[Below: Omar (Jamez McCorkle (center left in white garment) surrounded by members of the “Omar” chorus; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
San Francisco Opera regular choristers include California mezzo-soprano Aleta Braxton, Minnesota baritone Wiliam Lee Bryan, California baritone John Fulton and Florida bass-baritone Wilford Kelly. The slaveship crewmen were San Francisco Opera regular choristers, Rhode Island baritone William O’Neill and Missouri tenor Chester Pidduck.
San Francisco Opera extra choristers included Califonria mezzo-soprano Melissa Dufort and Alexander Taite and California soprano Chloe Vaught.
Maestro John Kennedy and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra
Maestro John Kennedy, who conducted the Spoleto Festival’s “Omar” world premiere, led an impassioned performance by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. Maestro Kennedy has a principal role in the annual Spoleto Festivals in Charleston. It was there that I reported on his conducting of the American premiere of a Liza Lim opera [Review: Elliot Madore, Marisol Montalvo Perform Liza Lim’s “Tree of Codes” – Spoleto Festival-USA, June 4, 2018.]
[Below: Maestro John Kennedy; edited image of a publicity photograph, from the Spoleto Festival].
The “Omar” score is rich in solo opporutnities accompanying the action on stage for the principal instrumentalists. Especially praiseworthy was a beautifully performed quartet consisting of concertmaster Kay Stern, Second Violin principal Jeremy Preston, Viola principal Carla Maria Rodrigues and Cello associate principal Thalia Moore.
Director Kaneza Schaal and Production Crew
New York director Kaneza Schaal coordinated the the complex production, much of it organized around Arabic writing, and West African Muslim images.
[Below: Director Kaneza Schaal; edited image of a Bart Michiels Studio photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The fluid sets were created by New York designers Christopher Myers and Pennsylvania designer Amy Rubin.
[Below: Designer Christopher Myers; edited image of a publicity photograph.]
The costumes, many of them covered with written Arabic script, were created by Colorado designer April M. Hickman and Illinois designer Micheline Russell-Brown. Mexican designer Pablo Santiago created the lighting, Massachusetts designer Joshua Higgason, the projections. Caifornia director Dave Maier choreographed fight sequences.
The operatic art form’s roots are based in Europe. Although the story lines of many operas take place in exotic, non-European locales, those locales predominantly reflect European imagination of what those locales are like.
“Omar” is based on autobiographical information written by an enslaved, literate, African scholar, fluent in Arabic and in Muslim teaching. One of the opera’s scenes take place in a part of West Africa where literate Africans of Muslim faith are preyed upon by slave traders. Other scenes takes place in slave-owning communities of the Southeastern United States.
Neither the slave trade nor slaveholding presently exist, but we have ample documentation that informs this opera’s libretto. We can be confident that the opera’s story truly portrays a man who existed, and whose sobering story is one we should know. That Omar’s story is accompanied with a melodious, nicely orchestrated operatic score that is always interesting and often inspiring is a further bonus.
I recommend the opera to both the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera.