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Transformative, Unifying Omar

Music speaks for itself – except when it can’t, in the face of prevailing cultural attitudes and power structures (consider Florence Price and a litany of other composers). Musicians endeavor in our work to fulfill the goal of letting the music do the talking, but we would be mistaken to think that is always enough. In my career, I have learned that it is often necessary to go a step further and share contextual and interpretative thoughts about music, because the interpretative mechanisms most listeners apply in the realm of classical music, new music, and opera are laden with assumptions of what is “normative” in these art forms. I have done this for years now in music of the widest stylistic variety, from the experimental to the radically consonant, in an effort to expand the range of what is in the “mainstream.” All new work is forced to squeeze itself into traditions that are overwhelming in their concepts of legacy and what constitutes “greatness,” and that are, yes, also overwhelmingly Eurocentric, male, and white.

I have had the incredible privilege to be part of the development and joyful run of the opera Omar from its very beginning. As a conductor and musical interpreter of the work, I’ve developed thoughts about Omar which I’d like to share not as an interpretative guide but as my human experience. I hope they might be helpful to others – particularly, the predominantly white opera audience – in how we engage with the richness of material that Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels have given us in their generous telling of the story of Omar ibn Said. To me, there are deep social and musicological elements of Omar that I don’t think the composers should be burdened with the labor of having to elaborate on – and because I am not aware of any discourse or critique of this opera yet to appear from Black writers, maybe my familiarity with the work may be of some value. Consider my thoughts an invitation – not prescriptive – to expand how you might hear and absorb this opera.

Primarily, I would ask of white audiences to look at Omar as not just a story about an enslaved Muslim in the early 1800s, but as something that helps you see your story too, as one who shares this cultural fabric that we call America or the United States. Consider that every day of their lives, non-white people have to see themselves in stories and art that center the white experience. Is it too much to ask of white people, in viewing an opera that centers the Black experience, to go beyond seeing it as cultural tourism about an “other”? You might find yourself in this story, in unexpected ways.

Expanding Musical Tradition

Omar has been lauded with widespread accolades and a Pulitzer Prize. I believe that over time, it will also be seen as a watershed cultural work in “American culture.” Omar tackles the difficult topics of slavery and American identity at a cultural moment when this is pressingly needed, and demonstrates that opera can also assert the important work of anti-racism. Omar accomplishes this both in its treatment of subject matter, but also through its music. The centering of Black experience and tackling the historical topic of one of our culture’s original sins would of itself be enough of an innovation. Blessedly, Omar goes far beyond delivering a read of essential subject matter. Within an operatic tradition and repertoire that are overwhelming in their whiteness, Omar merges and transcends musical traditions, centering Black resilience, beauty, and joy in the face of ongoing repression. It absorbs musical and dramatic traditions from the operatic canon, melding traditions from both within and outside of the opera world, becoming bigger than the sum of its parts.

Giddens’ and Abels’ visionary take starts from the beginning, with the theme of the extraordinary overture being derived from the Koromanti, the first transcription ever made of enslaved African musicians in the Caribbean, made in the 17th Century – which for historically-minded classical music aficionados, was before Bach was composing. While the music of Omar both utilizes and evokes a rich array of African and Black American musical traditions, from the very beginning it tells us that these traditions, developed across centuries of cultural communication and collision, are as deep and rich as other traditions which have informed and fueled “normative” classical, “western” music.

Omar uses all the elements of Grand Opera: a traditional orchestra, overture, big choruses, dance, and the typical structural elements of arias, duos, ariettas, and ensembles. I love how Giddens and Abels weave these traditions and tropes into operatic form just as Giuseppe Verdi did with the Italian vernacular, underpinning speech rhythm in the vocal line with motivic rhythmic repetition in the orchestra. The protagonist Omar and the other individual characters move in and out of relief against the backdrop of a greater body of people, generating social tension as familiar as in La Forza del Destino. I am by no means implying that Omar is anachronistic, or indebted to any composer – it is its own full self as a 21st Century opera. I do, however, think these qualities of connection to Verdi offer the opera-goer a deeper lens for hearing and considering how the composers merge traditions across centuries, continents, and contexts, shrewdly inhabiting a familiar operatic template.

From the first workshop in 2018, I saw how Omar transformed people through the use of musical material that felt less like the proclivities of individual composers, and more like the adept shaping of music which gathered deep musical and cultural traditions from countless contributors. Given sheet music just 48 hours before downbeat, we settled into reading it together, a familiar professional exercise. But as we sang, played, and breathed together, we experienced a shift into an uncommon and holy space. As the music came to life for the first time, the shared breath and eye contact beget a depth of feeling that shook us all. And I have loved seeing this sensation reproduce itself at each occasion new musicians and audiences experience this music and its story.

Tell Your Story

The music of Omar is indeed gripping, but as it unfolds loosely following the life path of Omar ibn Said, we become part of a journey into our individual and collective identities. There is no “hero’s journey” for Omar or triumph in story-telling (the staple of the white construct in so much opera and classical music), because our enslaved hero has been deprived of personal agency. Giddens’ libretto, in building a non-narrative story from such a brief autobiography, is not unlike those of Philip Glass’ historical operas about figures such as Gandhi, Kepler, and others.

For me, the journey of the opera began in 2015, when at Spoleto Festival USA, in the afterglow of commissioning a successful new opera, we considered what might be our next effort. I suggested it needed to be a Charleston story, that would face head-on the complicated and painful history of the city where the festival resides. Let’s face it: the opera world spent decades representing Blackness through Porgy and Bess. But that opera, now almost one hundred years old, was always presented as paean to a specific time and place: turn-of-the Century working class Black Charleston, which while picaresque, was never emblematic of “The Black American Experience.” Maybe it was due time for another opera to stand tall and to express another manifestation of the Black experience in Charleston and America.

So began the serendipitous path that led us to the story of Omar ibn Said, and finding creators with the acumen and creativity to tell his story generously and expansively. With her libretto, Giddens not only gives us a window into Omar’s life and the wider experience of the enslaved, but also transforms Omar’s journey and story into a larger parable of the spiritual and cultural endurance of Black Americans. With so little information about Omar’s life, Giddens liberates so-called “minor” characters from the chorus to step forward as individuals to remind us how many people shared Omar’s story. And, significant nuance in the libretto serves to portray the experience of slavery without overdramatizing labor and violence, dissecting instead the survival strategies enslaved people adopted to preserve themselves.

Consider the invented character of Julie, whose allusion to “good” and “bad” masters raises some eyebrows. Julie does this in the context of subtle references to the sexual exploitation of enslaved Black women. The opera alludes to this in some of her interactions, but there is no overt scene of violence to hammer this home. Instead, we can understand that Julie is not being acquiescent to her enslavement, but is using self-preservation in the face of violation and the inevitability of her circumstance. When Julie delivers her aria sharing her painful family history, she does not sing in tones of self-pity. No, she sings beautiful music which evokes reverie and warm memory of her parents. Can she, as an enslaved woman who has endured family separation, be allowed that – to portray Black American resilience in holding beauty in the face of ongoing repression?

The same might be said about Omar’s character development, given how little is known about his life with all of the mythologies around it (see the amazing book of scholarship on his life, I Cannot Write My Life). Sometimes an opera libretto has the efficiency to tell us much about a character in one aria, and Omar's story is beautifully encapsulated in his Act 2 aria, which is perhaps one of the greatest opera arias of the past 100 years. Omar was forced by his master Owen to recite the 23rd Psalm, which supposedly exhibited his religious “conversion.” But listen to what the composers have done in how Omar delivers the 23rd Psalm: he sings with defiance, and with broad musical and expressive freedom within the structure of verses; and then in the ensuing choral “Amen,” he delivers his supplication in Arabic. In just one aria, we have the essence of his autobiography, of a man who preserved his mind and spirit through almost six decades of enslavement.

Interpretation is Not All Black and White

In the past few years, we have welcomed the long-overdue emergence of new operas by Black composers which explore a plethora of Black experience. These new works are heralded on stages that would never have welcomed them in years past. As fantastic as this, we are missing the point if we pigeon-hole them as “Black operas.” Blackness and whiteness are after all, social constructs in the race-ism toolkit. At one of the Q&A sessions of an early Omar workshop, Rhiannon answered a query about this by saying that Omar is not just a Black story, but is also a white story, and that she hoped the opera would be viewed as an American story.

For these reasons, I hope that Omar is not subjected to the conceit of being programmed as cultural voyeurism for white people to gain “a view” into “African American history.” In its story and telling, aided in its first productions by the brilliantly insightful stage director Kaneza Schaal, Omar shows us that American Blackness is itself a complicated melting pot. One place in the opera where this sometimes raises issues for the white gaze is in the second act Hoedown and Frolic, in which enslaved people are having a good time. How can they be portrayed as having a good time? Aside from the rich historical information regarding the history of Black American music among the enslaved, is it really that hard to believe that human beings, no matter their condition, might want to hold for themselves the capacity to express their humanity and still experience joy together?

Non-white people are adept at surviving in predominantly white cultural constructs through what is known as code-switching. This is a cultural legacy in America from our history, and is key to the portrayal of the enslaved in Omar. Consider this progression in the libretto:

(Master Owen introduces Omar to the other slaves of the Owen plantation)


Welcome, brother, welcome, here in our home

You’ll be happy with us, here in our home…

(Master Owen leaves the scene; score instruction says “The moment Owen leaves, the mood changes”)

Hold your tongue, watch your look!

The rope is thin, the rope is thick,

Just one slip, you’ll get shook!

Once you fall it happens quick!

This abruptly stops, and leads to an impassioned chorale with text evoking the Langston Hughes poem “Minstrel Man” about the pain of performative behavior for white audiences, in smiles and song:

The mouth is wide, the song is deep

But our souls are ours are ours to keep

This is one of many subtle turns in the libretto which deftly illuminate Omar’s journey as a “pet” or “showcase” slave, and the journey of all enslaved Black Americans and their progeny who labor today to communicate the depth of this collective story.

And that collective story also deeply confronts whiteness and the overriding narratives that inform the historical and racial constructs we live in within our “western culture.” For white people, Omar provides a lens through which we can better understand and find our place within this history and its legacies today, recognizing it both inside and outside of our individual person.

Let’s consider the five principal white characters in Omar, and how each of us might find parts of ourselves in any and all of them. “Consider, sir…” (Omar to Owen)

Johnson (the overtly racist)

While Johnson’s racist violence is the most shocking, his attitudes are based in common cultural values that persist today. He primarily exerts superiority over an “other” who has no agency. He mocks their speaking of another language and the person’s incomprehension of English. Most importantly, he takes pleasure in the power of being a white person with a rank that is “higher” than non-whites, a power that is with no basis other than economic. “Like damn children, all of you.” These attitudes did not expire with emancipation or slaveholders.

Auctioneer (the cynical middleman)

The Auctioneer is the guy who is just doing his job. It’s not his place to speak up when he witnesses profound moral violence; he can stand by and observe while families are separated, and then get paid afterwards. He is a spokesman for and servant of the economy, enforcing the rules and staying “neutral.” “Ah here we have a set - I’ll sell ‘em together, or one by one - makes no difference to me.”

Owen (the virtuous Christian, precursor to the liberal white savior)

Owen’s primary devotion is to his own virtue. Associating himself with a belief in his God, and the importance of imparting this to the “ignorant,” he seeks to “save” Omar by enslaving him with the labor of a new worldview. His Christian perspective is a harbinger of the contemporary well-intentioned liberal, who believe their “progressive” worldview is a gift of enlightenment to those who need to be saved from their non-white cultural “wasteland.” “You need to be shown the way.”

Eliza (privileged young white female, in her own realm of disempowerment)

Owen’s daughter Eliza holds the innocence of children and sees the world with less bias, recognizing the beauty of Omar’s presence, faith, and writing. She wants Omar to be part of their world, so long as her world stays as it is. “Buy him, father, buy him, he belongs with us!” That last phrase – “he belongs with us” – is a tenet of white “inclusion” that is merely possessive if it does not honor true agency. Omar doesn’t want to belong – he wants to go home.

Taylor (the educated Yankee)

Taylor is the educated man who believes in the humanity of all people (“I suppose they learn just as we do”). Though sincere and “progressive”, he primarily wants to see white values displayed by the Other, and is the precursor of the white man who appropriates Black talent to burnish his own brand – “I would love to see you write!”

These characters in Omar are portraying life in the early 1800s. Over two hundred years later, their attitudes remain in the cultural fabric of whiteness which we all live amidst and either perpetuate or disassemble in ourselves. And with these archetypical characters, Giddens has given us a libretto rich in history but also with relevance for the present day.

For the Repertoire, and for All

If you’ve read this far, I hope there is something here for you to take away in considering the musical and cultural layers that I believe exist in Omar. And that in its finale chorus, you might come to feel that all of us in our humanity, are centered in or adjacent to this story.

For me, the adjacency is very personal through three of decades of marriage to a Black woman with whom I have two daughters. My wife Rozella is the granddaughter of Alice Jenkins (Green), three generations removed from the people of what is now called Hollywood, SC (formerly Jenkinsville and/or Adams’ Run), where the Jenkins’ Plantation of Charleston County was located, and where distant relatives still live. During my family’s past annual trips to Charleston for the Spoleto Festival, and our visits with relatives in “the country” too much a world apart from an international arts festival, we would sense the legacy of history and slavery as a tangible if unspoken presence, seeing kin in other faces and feeling threads that span generations. It has been a privilege for me to marry into this history and to be granted entrance into these cultural legacies, and to trace what is also now my family and progeny to those who landed at Gadsden Wharf.

And there are many thousands of people more amidst us for whom this story has such personal and indeed immediate, contemporary resonance. My mother-in-law Florence Floranz (nee Green, a South Carolina native, now living in Ghana) had come to the Spoleto Festival before, but certainly walked the difficult path of being in spaces that were unfamiliar and did not proffer much element of belonging. When she saw Omar, her experience was transformative – she “loved the show,” and still speaks of it to this day. Like others from the diaspora, she felt a cultural pride of ownership in the music and the thrall of history that belonged to her. Omar has an amazing ability to move people from all backgrounds regardless of their experiential relationship with opera – a true embodiment of meaningful artistic excellence.

Yes, the beauty of Omar is how generously it helps tell us who we are, being about and for all of us. Just come in and be welcomed. At one previous performance, there was my mother, a woman in her 90s from Minnesota who is a longtime season subscriber to many performing arts companies, with my Black sister-in-law and her husband, who were having the first operatic experience of their lives. Together, they shared the breathtaking and moving recognition, pride, sorrow, laughter, horror, and hope that Omar shares. This is the embodiment of healing and union. Beyond the individual, there is Us. And it is for and about Us that Omar proudly assumes a prominent place in the operatic repertoire and beyond.

– John Kennedy, November 2023

Photographs by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera production

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