‘Omar,’ Operatic Portrait Of An Enslaved Scholar, Proves Staying Power

Tenor Jamez McCorkle gives a tremendous performance in the title role in Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels’ opera ‘Omar‘ at San Francisco Opera. (Photos by Cory Weaver)

SAN FRANCISCO — As Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels’ new opera Omar runs its course through American stages, it has been gathering steam.

It started out in May 2022 at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., which happens to be where the opera’s slave auction occurs. I caught the second production in Los Angeles, courtesy of Los Angeles Opera, in October of that year and found it astonishingly moving — a real “folk opera” that pushes the boundaries beyond what Gershwin conceived for his “folk-opera” Porgy and Bess (which is also set in Charleston). From there, it went to Carolina Performing Arts in Chapel Hill, N.C., in February 2023 and Boston Lyric Opera in May, picking up the Pulitzer Prize in music on its way.

Then, at the Ojai Festival in June 2023, there was a cut-down concert version called Omar’s Journey that wasn’t so astonishing; it clearly needed a full staging of the full score with a full orchestra, cast, and chorus in order to realize its power. The sole advantage of that performance was having the composers’ participation — Abels as conductor and Giddens singing the role of Julie.

Bass-baritone Daniel Okutitch plays the abusive owner Johnson in ‘Omar.’

Now it’s San Francisco Opera’s turn to host Omar as its contribution to November’s statewide California Festival: A Celebration of New Music (Nov. 3-19). Virtually the entire production crew from the LA Opera performances — including director Kaneza Schaal and set designer Christopher Myers — was on hand, along with five members of the cast. John Kennedy, who led the world premiere at Spoleto but wasn’t there for the L.A. engagement, was back in the pit for San Francisco’s production.

Now you’re talkin’. The opening performance Nov. 5 at the War Memorial Opera House reaffirmed the first impression I had in L.A. last year, and then some. This opera is built to last.

To recap briefly, Omar is based on the short autobiography of Omar ibn Said, the only example we currently have of a memoir by a slave written in Arabic. Omar was a Muslim scholar and teacher who lived in what is now Senegal. He was captured by a marauding band of raiders in 1807, shipped across the Atlantic in appalling conditions, and sold into slavery in Charleston. First, he was bought by an abusive owner named Johnson and then, after he escaped and was jailed in Fayetteville, sold to a relatively humane master, Jim Owen. Owen proceeded to convert Omar to Christianity, which Omar submitted to on the surface but apparently retained his allegiance to Islam in his Arabic writings, as if in code. One can liken this to Shostakovich submitting to Soviet authorities while conceiving a subversive code in musical language that flies over the commissars’ heads.

This is a story that demands a narrative arc on a grand scale — and Giddens and Abels have achieved that, utilizing a battery of musical idioms that range from a Jamaican fiddle tune and Senegalese and Arabic music to American folk music and dances, bluegrass, spirituals, operatic arias, echoes of Aaron Copland and Porgy, and other areas about which Giddens is incurably curious. Giddens, who also wrote the libretto, reportedly conceived melodic lines and structures on a banjo — surely a first for an opera — while Abels fleshed everything out with orchestrations and transitions.

Jamez McCorckle as Omar and Brittany Renee as Julie

Moreover, Omar deals in nuances that add to the piece’s power. And for that, one has to experience the opera whole. The roles of slaveowners Johnson and Owen are performed by the same baritone — and while the former is irredeemably evil and the latter is kindly, they both don’t think much of Black people in general (although Owen is impressed by Omar’s literacy). Two sides of the same coin, in other words.

In Act II, Omar is obliged to wear a light-blue vest signifying Christianity that is the same color as Owen’s outfit — but the vest, like the religion, doesn’t quite fit. In the grand finale, in which Omar is urged by his enslaved friend Julie and the spirit of his late mother Fatima to tell his story and stay true to his roots, the lighting gradually changes from Christian blue to African orange. I appreciate that Omar tries not to hit us over the head with the idea that slavery is evil and wrong; we know that already, and the opera doesn’t use or need explicit scenes of violence and abuse to drive home the point. It’s there for our imaginations to infer, and that was all that was necessary.

While maintaining Schaals and Myers’ absorbing collection of streamers, scrims, arched doorways, and especially the stunning drapes with Arabic writing evoking the jail cell walls that Omar scribbled upon, the San Francisco production differed slightly from the Los Angeles edition in a few ways. Some telling details that I noticed in Los Angeles — like the projections of appalling, presumably authentic price lists of slaves by age and talents for the auction — were not as visible or as detailed on the San Francisco stage.

As in Porgy and Bess, the chorus plays a central role in defining the communities in which the characters live. Yet spreading the chorus throughout the opera house in the finale was more effective in San Francisco — and that had everything to do with the respective layouts of the halls. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles employs continental seating with just two aisles on the extreme ends of the orchestra level. But War Memorial has five aisles in the orchestra level, so the choristers could station themselves within the audience to produce a truer, more emotionally moving surround-sound effect than in L.A.

The Act II finale of ‘Omar’

Of the five cast members from the LA Opera production who returned to their roles, the most crucial one was tenor Jamez McCorkle, who repeated his tremendous performance as Omar, starting out more powerfully than before yet still finding room to expand his portrayal and gain strength while maintaining the character’s stoic dignity. Bass-baritone Daniel Okutitch again convincingly employed what sounded like two different voices for Johnson and Owen. In other doubled roles, tenor Barry Banks illuminated two sides of another coin as the Auctioneer and Owen’s sidekick Taylor, and baritone Norman Garrett reprised his powerful portrayal of Omar’s brother Abdul and added Abe for San Francisco. Dancer Jermaine McGhee’s whirling, non-singing Ancestral Figure — a role that was belatedly added to the opera in Los Angeles — was back for this production.

Soprano Brittany Renee nearly stopped the show with her gorgeous rendition of Julie’s Act II aria, her tone quality blooming as the pitch rose, even outdoing Giddens herself in Ojai. Mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven sounded a bit tremulous as Fatima in Act I, though her voice stabilized in Act II. Kennedy led the San Francisco Opera Orchestra in a generally warmer, more richly textured performance than the previous ones that I heard, exposing fascinating details like the softly dissonant repeated muted trumpet inserts adding dashes of doubt to the sweetness of Julie’s aria. The SFO chorus seemed somewhat recessed in the overall sonic picture until the finale, when they got out from under the proscenium.

All told, San Francisco Opera did a splendid, committed job of confirming the emotional power this opera is capable of producing. Omar continues at War Memorial through Nov. 21 — and if it ever comes to your city, don’t hesitate. Go.