Monday, November 13, 2023

Omar at SF Opera

The San Francisco Opera is having an historic season. Among the eight operas they are performing this fall and next summer, three are new, written within the last five years and co-comissioned by the company. Omar, the second opera of this trilogy, opened last week and it's a stunning show about the physical and spiritual journey of Omar Ibn Said, a West African Muslim scholar at the beginning of the 19th century who is kidnapped into American slavery for the next 60 years. (production photos by Cory Weaver)
The composer and librettist is Rhiannon Giddens, a 46-year-old polymath musician from North Carolina. She collaborated in its orchestration with the 61-year-old Michael Abels who has been writing classical concert music for decades but only recently became well-known for his soundtracks for Jordan Peele's arty horror films. Besides being a successful pop singer, Giddens is a noted archaeologist of American folk music and its immigrant roots, convincingly evangelizing for the inclusion of Africa as a major source.
Omar contains a monster gumbo of different musical styles, from operatic to gospel to folk, but they work together smoothly and the music stays consistently engaging for three hours. Plus, it is such a welcome change to have black artists exploring black roots music for a classical music audience rather than white artists plundering the same mine for most of the 20th century.
The opera was commissioned for the Spoleto Festival 2020 in South Carolina but the pandemic upended everything so its premiere was at Spoleto Festival 2022. Afterwards, the opera traveled to the LA Opera where the production was super-sized, brilliantly. Another polymath artist, Christopher Myers, was the production designer and his work is masterful, some of the most striking designs I've seen on a stage. That goes for the rest of the production team too: Set Designer Amy Rubin, Costume Designers April M. Hickman and Micheline Russell-Brown, Lighting Designer Pablo Santiago, and Projection Designer Joshua Higgason.
I tend to avoid stories concerning the Holocaust and American slavery because they seem too massively horrible to be considered as entertainment. The first act of Omar, with its brilliantly staged Middle Passage sequence, should be rough on the conscience of any white American, particularly since this history is still being officially repressed here 200 years later. The second act is cheerier, however, with square dancing, a "good" plantation master, and lots of theology centering around The Word.
The cast is strong throughout, anchored by the young tenor Jamez McCorkle as Omar. He has been singing the role around the country since its debut in Spoleto, and he projects a spiritual stolidity throughout all his trials that feels genuinely powerful.
Taylor Raven was resplendent as Omar's mother Fatima, who is killed in the first scene but appears through the rest of the opera as a fabulous ghost...
...while soprano Brittany Renee brought some sunshine as fellow slave Julie who helps Omar survive.
The four roles for evil and good white characters were divided between two singers, tenor Barry Banks as the Slave Auctioneer/Liberal Friend and baritone Daniel Okulitch as the Evil Master/Good Master. They both did great jobs as characters who the audience couldn't help but despise, and appear in the penultimate scene where the "good master" is insisting that his new educated house slave, Omar, become a Christian and leave his "false god."
What nobody but Omar seems to realize is that Islam recognizes Moses and Jesus as true prophets, but that Mohammed had received the latest word from God. The opera begins with a long prayer to Allah that bookends a long finale where The Word of the Bible, Psalm 23, is transformed and superseded by a prayer from The Word of the Koran. The chorus meanwhile has spread itself throughout the auditorium, surrounding the audience in sound. The ensuing musical transcendence was real and well earned. Also, though there are many explicitly Christian scenes throughout the history of Western Opera, and a few Jewish ones, I have never heard Islam used positively this way in an opera house before. On the third, Saturday night performance, the house seemed to be sold out and the audience was liberally sprinkled with what looked like much of the Bay Area Muslim community. The word has gotten out.

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