Jamez McCorkle and the singers of "Omar." Credit: Courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA

Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels: Omar | Carolina Performing Arts | UNC’s Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill  |  Saturday, Feb. 25–Sunday, Feb. 26

It is a brief but exceptional document from the early 1800s: the surviving record of a person’s life on 14 fragile, yellowed sheets of paper, each about the size of an iPad screen. Between the covers, the 15 pages of text are abruptly divided in mid-manuscript by eight pages left mysteriously blank.

The mystery deepens. The title page reads, “The Life of Omar Ben Saeed, called Morro, a Fullah Slave, in Fayetteville, N.C.” Further down, we read: “Written by himself in 1831.”

The rest of the script is handwritten in Arabic.

The document, online now after the Library of Congress bought it in a 2017 auction at Sotheby’s of London, is the primary text and inspiration for OMAR, a new opera by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels. Carolina Performing Arts, which co-commissioned the work with Charleston’s Spoleto Festival, where it premiered last spring, presents it this weekend in Memorial Hall.

Giddens, a Grammy and MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” award winner, is a household name in regional music after co-founding the Black folk-roots band Carolina Chocolate Drops in 2005. But locals have likely heard Abels as well: in addition to commissions for Kronos Quartet and the National Symphony Orchestra, he’s also scored the soundtracks for HBO’s Bad Education, Fake Famous, and Allen v. Farrow and for Jordan Peele’s three feature films: Get Out, Us, and Nope.

Both composers faced formidable challenges in creating an evening-length theatrical work out of a manuscript no longer than 2,000 words. “I don’t feel that we know much about Omar’s life—not as much as I would want to as a modern reader,” Abels says.

In part, that’s because the work’s first four pages, which begin with the Basmala, the first words of the Quran, constitute something of an Islamic admonition: a stern sermon on the ways of God and a stark day of recompense for those he calls “heirs of the Fire.”

That should be expected, though, according to Carl Ernst, a specialist in Islamic studies in UNC’s Religious Studies Department. Omar was a 37-year-old man who’d already been a scholar of Sufi Islam for over 20 years when his village in Senegal was conquered and he was sold into slavery in 1807—ironically, the very year that Congress outlawed the importation of slaves.

“As a scholar in Africa, he would have been trained to do two things: to teach and to heal,” Ernst says. “As a teacher, one of his jobs was to give sermons.” (Those sermons would have been interpreted as Christian by his captors, who insisted on his conversion from Islam, and whom he appeased by professing a shared faith and translating Bible verses into Arabic.)

But Abels considers the opening sermon in Omar’s “Life,” focused on the evils of the world, as part of cleverly encoded—and risky—messages to audiences well beyond the South.

“Remember: as an enslaved person, there’s no space for him to freely speak his mind,” Abels says. “Being either invited or ordered by his master to write an autobiography is a situation where he’s being given more than enough rope to hang himself.”

“Omar” co-writer Rhiannon Giddens. Photo by Ebru Yildiz

But to the degree Omar veils his criticism of slavery in ecclesiastical critique, “the words come from beyond him. It’s about the only way he can say something that might otherwise get him in trouble, or even killed,” Abels says.

Omar has a vanishingly rare opportunity, as a learned man and a slave, to bear witness, and engage the souls and minds of those who might read him. And yet, he also has to realize that he can’t go too far.

“That’s a scary dichotomy,” Abels concludes.

Giddens’s words thread a very fine needle through such a careful letter to the world—a missive that has to encrypt certain observations and placate Omar’s immediate audience while serving the homiletic needs of a devout religious scholar.

“In writing the libretto, she really found the heart of his story,” Abels says. “She managed to find the person in the autobiography, and tell his story in a way that is historically accurate and yet incredibly personal, human, and moving.”

The peace of Omar’s ancestral village is evoked at the start in rich orchestral settings influenced by the folk music of Senegal. As the story continues through the harrowing Middle Passage, a chaotic Charleston slave auction, Omar’s escape from his first owner, and his imprisonment in a Fayetteville jail, Abels and Gidden’s musical palette shifts prismatically among blues, ragtime, and Black spiritual and church music, before the expansive modern choral forms in a moving final invocation.

Amy Rubin’s scenic design, Joshua Higgason’s projections, and April Hickman and Micheline Russell-Brown’s costumes similarly shift with scenes to evince a world in which the sacred is inscribed—at times, literally—on all things and all people.

“The important thing is that we now have the ability to hear what Omar has to say,” Ernst says. “And that’s going to be major.”

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