Saturday night on the Music Center Plaza seemed more festive than usual and with reason. A stylishly turned-out audience came to see and celebrate the new opera Omar by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels. Premiered at the Spoleto Festival last May this is its second stop on a journey that’s slated to include Boston Lyric Opera, San Francisco Opera, and Lyric Opera of Chicago.
The opera is based on the life of Omar ibn Said who was a highly educated man and religious scholar from a prosperous family in West Africa. He was captured and enslaved and spent the majority of his life in North Carolina. He wrote a number of manuscripts and essays in Arabic and one in particular “The Life of Omar ibn Said” is the only recounting we have of an enslaved person from their own hand.
Ms. Giddens and Mr. Abels take a great deal of license in order to tell the story and it builds through the horrors of the Middle Passage and an escape from a cruel master to a new, more humane one who appreciates Omar’s education and religious devotion.
The musical palette is a wide one and Ms. Giddens is a classically trained singer who has found her niche in the Bluegrass community (and a few Grammys). She’s a multi-hyphenate singer, writer, songwriter, actress, and MacArthur grant recipient. Her partner on this project, Mr. Abels, is a film composer widely known for his scores for Jordan Peele’s films and who studied West African drumming techniques while at university.
While Ms. Giddens wrote the libretto their working relationship consisted of her playing entire scenes and arias for Mr. Abels, on the various instruments she favors, who would then help develop thematic elements and build orchestrations and choral parts. It was a particularly harmonious relationship, from all reports.
A beautiful prelude written for violin and underscored by drums and glittering percussion gives way to a myriad of musical influences building from Africa but later embracing hymns, bluegrass, jazz, country, sprinkled with Copland-esque flavors of Americana. Keeping with those themes it’s a very accessible score and its libretto is plain-spoken almost to a fault.
Primarily it’s simple story telling but its greatest moments are when Ms. Giddens achieves that magical combination of real poetry wedded with music. Although at times it seems she’s more adept in the simple character recitatives than in some of the larger, set-piece moments. There is a wonderful balance in the story telling no doubt and especially considering how much of this journey is spiritual it’s particularly successful.
The first production of any work takes on an inordinate responsibility both for design and directing and I don’t think a better team could have been hoped for. Starting with the costumes designed by April M. Hickman and Micheline Russell-Brown in a bright rainbow of colors and all decorated with Arabic characters. Designer Christopher Myers, scenic designer Amy Rubin, with lighting by Pablo Santtiago and projections by Joshua Higgason obviously all worked in close concert.
From the opening in a monumental Senegalese city through the harrowing ocean journey and finally plantation life the need for Omar to read and write is always clearly tantamount to his survival. The opening of the second act with the main character surrounded by draped mountains of his words was just one of the more powerful images that brought applause at curtain up.
Director Kaneza Schaal kept things flowing fairly seamlessly over the course of the two acts and excelled at bringing an almost cinematic vision and focus to both the intimate moments which then opened out into wider scenes of community and fellowship.
The casting was very fine, starting with Jamez McCorkle who created the title role at the premiere and obviously reveled in its challenges. His burnished tenor sound had no trouble filling out the lower portions of the role and he deployed a magical head voice later in the evening in some of the more spiritual moments.
His mother Fatima, and her spirit, were sung with a contralto-tinged mezzo by the formidable Amanda Lynn Bottoms. With a voice that only continued to grow throughout the evening she brought a powerful personal dignity to every scene she appeared in.
Both of Omar’s owners were played by baritone Daniel Okulitch. It’s a cunning piece of casting, the message of which was made potently clear. In spite of the second master being more benevolent he does make it his work to convert Omar to Christianity. Mr. Okulitch delineated his dramatic and vocal characterization so well that I wasn’t even aware of the trick until halfway through the second act.
The pivotal role of the enslaved Julie, who points the way to Omar for a better life, is nothing short of a star turn for soprano Jacqueline Echols. Gifted with one of the most touching moments in the opera in her aria, “My daddy wore a cap like yours”, Julie presents him with a new head covering and tells him how her father followed Muslim disciplines although she wasn’t aware of what it meant at her young age. Ms. Echols’ voice filled this lovely conversational piece very movingly and brought it to a powerful emotional and vocal climax.
This exceptionally strong ensemble had one other delicious standout in Deepa Johnny who is a new member of our young artist program. Her showcase aria in the second act compares Omar’s writing on the walls of his jail cell to birds flying through the sky. She brought a lovely, bright, flutey mezzo soprano to the piece and her youthful joy was credible and sweet.
Special mention should go to Barry Banks as an appropriately greasy Auctioneer and I should say the diction of the entire cast was nothing less than superb. Although there were supertitles running they were rarely needed. You could have taken dictation from the chorus of nearly 40.
None of this would have been possible without the nimble playing of the LA Opera Orchestra and their leader Kazen Abdullah. An alumnus of our young artist program, he brought a surety and precision to the proceedings that couldn’t have been easy to accomplish in a score that changes its mind so quickly from one topic to the next.
One especially potent moment near the finale of the first act in which Omar’s first master was berating him horribly had the house lights come up just slightly in the auditorium so we were made aware of who the topic of discussion actually was.
The importance of new voices in opera can’t be ignored. As much as I love Verdi and Wagner, et all, we’ll never find new masterpieces without supporting new artists and allowing them to flourish. As to the ethnic elements it’s undeniable that we need the African American experience on the lyric stage above and beyond Porgy & Bess which isn’t.
Whether Omar will gain a foothold in the standard repertory remains to be seen. It is a beautifully staged and sung production that, although essentially homespun, is profound at times and deserves to be seen. The audience greeted its opening night with more genuine enthusiasm than I have ever seen at LA Opera. I hope it continues to inspire.
Photos: Cory Weaver / LA Opera