In ‘Omar,’ Muslim enslaved man tries to retain his identity

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Bennett Purser

L t R: Briana Hunter plays Katie Ellen, Jacqueline Echols plays Julie, and Jamez McCorkie plays Omar in LA Opera’s 2022 West Coast premiere of “Omar.” Photo by Cory Weaver/LA Opera.

The new opera “Omar” tells the real story of Omar ibn Said, a man who was taken in 1807 from what’s now Senegal, and was enslaved in North and South Carolina. He wrote an autobiography in Arabic, and it’s the only known account of the trans-Atlantic trade written in the language. Musician Rhiannon Giddeon collaborated with composer Michael Abels to create the show, which is playing at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion until November 13. 

Giddens is from North Carolina, and she says prior to working on “Omar,” she had never heard ibn Said’s story. Much of what’s known about his life comes from his autobiography, but it doesn’t include many details. Giddens says he was taken from his home in Futu Toro in West Africa in his late 30s. He died enslaved. 

“He was stolen at 37, which is an amazing age. You're a fully formed person. He was already very deep in his studies, and then is brought to an entirely new world, where he's not hearing his languages or his religion. He's expected to change who he is. How do you survive that?” Giddens says. 

“Omar” is the first opera both Giddens and Abels have written. Giddens says ibn Said’s story is perfect for the art form because of how deep the story runs. 

“It's music drama. You sing and you tell a story … and you create a character onstage. That is a great showcase for really big emotions. It's a great showcase for really big stories,” Giddens says. “What’s a bigger story than being torn from your homeland and having to learn how to live in a new place? How to hold your religion? How to hold your culture, while you're being torn down at every turn? That's very operatic.”

Throughout the show, Abels says incorporated different cultural influences, including Senegalese, Muslim, and American south musical styles such as includes ragtime and blues. 

“I just wanted to make sure that there was a harmonic language of opera that has a grand sweep to it. And sometimes it's very dark and uncomfortable in the right places. And so we were able to really contrast the beauty of some of the melodies which are, in some ways, folk melodies, with some of the real dark implications where that was appropriate.”

Giddens says that at the core of “Omar” is a man who was full of faith and experienced an entirely different life before being enslaved. She says ibn Said studied the Quran in West Africa and was expected to convert when he arrived in the U.S. 

“The whole point of highlighting this story is that it complicates the narrative of what is the American story. Nobody was a blank slate when they got here, whether they were brought here against their will, or whether they came because they were being pushed out of wherever they were. That's why I never use the word slave. It's enslaved person, because that person was a person.” 

She adds, “We are able to draw strength from each other's stories. And that's how we build empathy. And the more varied and different viewpoints we put out there, the more we realize, in actuality, we're all going through very similar things.”