* Notes *
Omar, an opera about a West African Islamic scholar sold into slavery, opened at San Francisco Opera this afternoon. The opera by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels is an artful combination of rhythms, syncopation, textures, and lyricism.
The main character of the opera, Omar ibn Said, is based on a real person who was born in Futa Toro (present day Senegal) and spent more than twenty years studying with Muslim scholars. He was captured in 1807 and enslaved, taken to Charleston, South Carolina, sold to a cruel master, ran away to Fayetteville, North Carolina, was jailed, and then subsequently sold to one James Owen, who was fascinated by Omar's literacy in Arabic and used this as a kind of party trick, giving samples of his writing as gifts to friends. Half a dozen documents that Omar wrote in Arabic survive, including an autobiography.
The production (Act II, Scene 4 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver), from Kaneza Schaal, is very attractive and involves quite a lot of cloth and Arabic calligraphy. The projections are thoughtful, I liked seeing Omar ibn Said's image from an ambrotype on the scrim before the piece began, and the way he was brought to life once the music started really worked well. Having the Arabic script projected as if it were being written was also a nice way to emphasize the importance of writing in this story. The costumes too were all covered with writing and it kept this opera from being a simple period piece. Having Omar enter from the audience dressed in contemporary clothing, and transforming himself into this character by putting on his costume on stage was effective, and drew us in right away. The dancing, choreographed by Kiara Ben, was often full of joy. The Ancestral Figure portrayed by Jermaine McGhee spun ecstatically in more than one scene.
The music has lots of West African drums, including the tar, the ghaval, the talking drum, and the djembes. There is also a focus on strings, there is even a viola solo at the beginning of Act I. A variety of influences could be heard, from spirituals to blues, but it is definitely an opera, with beautiful, sweeping lyricism. Conductor John Kennedy kept everyone together.
The 32 choristers sounded unified throughout the opera. It was especially moving to have them in the audience for the last scene, singing all around us. The rest of the cast was solid from top to bottom. Tenor Barry Banks has such a bright, sweet tone, that was absolutely disturbing as the auctioneer in Act I, Scene 3. He reappears as Taylor in Act II, sounding as lovely as ever. Baritone Daniel Okulitch plays both of Omar's masters, Johnson and Owen, and sounds strong.
Mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven is haunting as Omar's mother Fatima, her voice is dramatic and very clean. Soprano Brittany Renee, as fellow enslaved person Julie, also has a crystalline sound with a good heft to it. Her scene with Omar where she reveals her father was also a Muslim was very sympathetic. Best of all is tenor Jamez McCorkle (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) in the title role. His voice is so pretty and clear, and his part is heartrending.
* Tattling *
The audience was focused and quiet, I heard no electronic noise, people with phones out were admonished as were those who talked.
There were at least three people that were not able to make it through the last scene, and one even climbed over other people to get to the aisle.