The debut of ‘Omar,’ a thoroughly American opera

NPR Music story by Anastasia Tsioulcas

A new opera tells the true story of an enslaved man taken from his home in what is now Senegal and trafficked to South Carolina. The opera premiered at the Spoleto Festival USA, less than a mile down the road from where the man was sold and after which he spent five decades on plantations, including the one at which he wrote his autobiography — the only known, surviving slave narrative written in Arabic.

Julie, an enslaved Black woman, is a fictional character that Rhiannon Giddens created for this opera. When Julie first met the newly enslaved man, she later tells him, he reminded her strongly of someone else: “My daddy wore a cap like yours,” she sings. She’s referring to the kufi that many Muslim men and those from the African diaspora wear.

The opera Omar is a broadly American story. But history hangs particularly heavy and close in Charleston, S.C., where the opera had its debut in late May. The real man on whom this opera is based, Omar Ibn Said, was a Muslim man who became a slave in Charleston, like about 40 percent of other Africans who were forced into North America. Said then spent five decades on a plantation in Fayetteville, N.C., where he wrote his life’s story.

“It was shocking,” Giddens says of learning of Said’s autobiography, “Somebody or an event that’s from my home state that’s massive, such a huge story. And I’ve never heard this story, having lived the majority of my life in North Carolina.” Trained in college as an opera singer, Giddens is best known as an American roots musician, a singer and songwriter who wields a mean banjo and makes her viola croon. More than that, she says, “I guess I look for overlooked stories to tell.”

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