The opening Act 2 scene of “Omar,” the 2023 Pulitzer Prize winner for music currently at San Francisco Opera, is particularly memorable and poignant and, in some ways, speaks to the spiritual quality of this of-the-moment, all-American opera about an enslaved 19th-century Islamic scholar.
Set in the Fayetteville County Jail (North Carolina) in the early 1800s, Omar, sung and acted by tenor Jamez McCorkle, has escaped from his South Carolina plantation and ends up behind bars.
In this 2022 first-ever opera by singer-composer Rhiannon Giddens and composer Michael Abels, Eliza, sung by mezzo-soprano Laura Krumm, the daughter of Owen, a rich plantation owner, urges her father to buy Omar, who has learned to speak English and also has written Arabic script, perhaps from the Quran, on the jail cell wall.
To paraphrase, Krumm sings about “the best magic of all, the word of God, written on the jailhouse wall.” And Owen, sung by baritone Daniel Okulitch, buys Omar.
As he does so, script taken from Omar’s autobiography, the only slave narrative written in Arabic, is projected not only a stage backdrop but also on Omar’s clothing — and also on the clothing of the supernumerary Black slaves and just about everthing else in this spellbinding production. It is designed by Christopher Myers, whose sets and projections are defined by beautiful Arabic script, directed by Kaneza Schaal, conducted with aplomb and steadfast conviction by John Kennedy, and choreographed superbly by Kiara Benn.
In short, the opera tells the story of Omar ibin Said, who was taken from his West African home (that is today Senegal) in 1807 (one year before federal legislation that outlawed the importation of slaves). Despite the horrors and brutality of slavery, he fervently adheres to his faith and identity and writes his personal story, history that becomes part of American history that U.S. high school students most likely do not hear about or read: 1619, when the first Black laborers in English North American were brought to Jamestown, Virginia. Ultimately, “Omar” is a story of Blackness, of free labor that built much of early America, especially in the South, on land originally populated by American Indians.
From beginning to end in slightly fewer than three hours, Giddens’ libretto chronicles a relatively straightforward story of Omar’s progress in a white society, a tale of struggle, change and adaptation set to a rich menu of musical combinations uniquely American, blending West African kora (a long-necked harp lute) with bluegrass, Negro spirituals, folk, jazz and Western classical sounds.
It is interesting to note that Giddens and Abels called for the orchestra to include several different types of African drums, from the tar and ghaval to a talking drum and djembes. So throughout, the audience gets an aural glimpse of African-centric participatory and dense polyphony that mirrors the link between pitch in the human voice, the singing, and music; hence, the idea of the “talking” drums, of call and response, creating a musical conversation, which, besides the dynamic vocalism of several singers, is at the core of the score.
McCorkle makes his company debut as Omar, who created the role of Omar at the opera’s world premiere at Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina, and has performed it in several other cities, including Chapel Hill, Boston and Los Angeles. From his first aria, telling of his turmoil and anguish, his voice radiates with dark colorations that often surprise.
His interactions with his mother, Fatima, sung and acted by mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven, are among the opera’s vocal highlights. Equally notable are McCorkle’s scenes with Julie, a friend during his enslavement, a role portrayed by soprano Brittany Renee, whose voice rings with clarity and confidence.
Costume designers used English, Arabic, and several African languages imprinted on the singers and actors’ clothing. One of Myers’ projections, a stage wing-to-wing diagram of enslaved Africans in the hold of a ship, is a showstopper. Toward the opera’s end, more than 20 singers raised their voices in the orchestra level, while 18 others were spread out in the aisles and upper balconies of the War Memorial Opera House, while McCorkle stood center stage, his hands raised in prayer to Allah.
Time will tell if this new opera, the first written by Black composers, ranks with several other major 21st-century American operas, including John Adams’ “Dr. Atomic” and Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking.” But it is clearly in the running and may actually be ahead of the pack.
IF YOU GO
San Francisco Opera
When: Saturday to Nov. 21
Where: War Memorial Opera House,
301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $10 to $426,
$27.50 for Nov. 11 livestream
Telephone: (415) 864-3330