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'Omar': Opera based on the true story of an enslaved man shatters myths

Jamez McCorkle (center) as Omar. (Cory Weaver/LA Opera)
Jamez McCorkle (center) as Omar. (Cory Weaver/LA Opera)

This segment was rebroadcast on May 12, 2023 after “Omar” won the Pulitzer Prize. Click here for that audio. 

A new opera brings to light a remarkable, long-buried American story of an enslaved man who wrote his memoirs in Arabic for future generations to read.

His name was Omar ibn Said. A Muslim, ibn Said was captured in Senegal and brought to Charleston, South Carolina in 1807. He managed to escape a brutal plantation owner and ran to Fayetteville, North Carolina — but was re-captured and jailed for running away.

All across the walls of his jail cell, Said wrote Quranic verses in Arabic, making him the subject of fascination at the time. A Christian plantation owner wanted to convert him. He was sold again and lived as an enslaved man until he died in his 90s in 1864.

His autobiography has been adapted into an opera called “Omar,” which has won the Pulitzer Prize for music.

Portrait of Omar Ibn Said (1770-1864), the subject of “Omar.” (Courtesy of LA Opera)

Grammy-winning musician Rhiannon Giddens composed the opera based on the book “A Muslim-American Slave: The Life of Omar Ibn Said, the English translation of his autobiography. She brought in film composer Michael Abels, known for his work on several of Jordan Peele’s films, to help create the music.

“I had never heard of Omar, and Rhiannon said she hadn’t either. And that is the problem,” Abels says. “Omar’s story is quintessential to American life, and it is very important that all of our stories be told so we understand who we are in the present.”

Historians say one-quarter to one-third of the enslaved people brought to the U.S. from Africa were Muslim. ibn Said was also a scholar, so his story debunks the racist stereotype of the uneducated enslaved person.

Jamez McCorkle as Omar. (Cory Weaver/LA Opera)

“What drew me to his story was the incredible obstacles of his life and the hardship he endured,” Abels says, “and yet his ability to remain true to his culture while, at the same time, satisfying the needs of his demanding owners.”

The sweeping story includes scenes and sounds from Africa, the American South and from Muslim and Christian themes. The opera includes early jazz and bluegrass melodies woven along with the arias.

“This is what opera is great for,” says director Kaneza Schaal. “Opera is a place that can hold complexity and contradiction.”

Ibn Said’s writing is emphasized on stage: The set design and all of the costuming are covered in the Arabic calligraphy of his own words.

“Whenever you study a single person’s story,” Abels says, “I think it actually makes a historical event even more significant.”

Shirley Jahad produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Gabe Bullard. Jahad also adapted it for the web

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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