5 Questions to Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels about Omar

As a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and through her current career as a singer-songwriter, banjoist, and fiddler (as well as a return to her operatic roots), Rhiannon Giddens has brought a much-needed complexity to mainstream Americana, folk, and country music. Giddens’ newest project is the opera Omar, co-composed with Get Out (2017) and Us (2019) composer Michael Abels with a libretto by Giddens.

Omar will receive its world premiere at Spoleto Festival USA on in May 2022. The opera explores the experiences and writings of African Muslim scholar Omar ibn Said (1770–1864), author of the “only extant slave autobiography written in Arabic in America” while enslaved in South Carolina. The Giddens–Abels partnership is an exciting complement: Giddens’ regularly uses research and critical fabulation of enslavement and migration histories to inform her songwriting; and Abels’ routinely draws upon African, African American, and Western classical elements in his work. The result is an invigorating contribution to opera in terms of subject matter, collaboration, and artistic priorities.

Rhiannon, what drew you to the life of Omar Ibn Said?

Spoleto Festival USA came to me and asked if I knew of Omar Ibn Said and if I would write an opera on his life. As a North Carolina native and someone who has dedicated their career to shining a light on under-recognized voices, I was shocked that I had heard nothing about this man. As soon as his name was first uttered to me, I dove deep into his legacy and story of enslavement, resilience, and spirituality. I was moved to learn of him and got to know him, and I was compelled to create a musical space for his voice to live.

Michael, what were the musical elements/styles that you knew were essential to telling Ibn Said’s story?

African-American folksongs and spirituals are the first musical influences, followed by bluegrass and ragtime. There’s an influence of Senegalese music, particularly in Omar’s most introspective moments. But there is also an influence of music of the greater Muslim diaspora, because the religious aspects of Omar’s struggle are meant to be representative of many American Muslims. There are also some moments in this work that feel like Protestant hymns, others that are a bit Wagnerian, and then deliberate nods to Porgy and Bess, the most famous opera set in Charleston. These diverse influences co-exist through the use of a traditional orchestral palette and very singable vocal lines.

Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels at a workshop for Omar--Photo by Leigh Webber

Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels at a workshop for Omar–Photo by Leigh Webber

Michael, what overlaps (if any) did you see in your approach to writing an opera vs scoring a film?

In the moment of creation, there’s no difference to me in writing for the two genres. However, the cultural differences between the two are too many to list. Obviously, the biggest one is that all the “dialogue” is sung! But here’s a less obvious difference that is just as crucial: in film, when an emotion occurs to a character, there is often a moment where the audience is given a chance to interpret that emotion and react before the music enters and confirms that reaction. But in opera, the music often introduces the emotion, and the character sings into the emotional context provided by that music. That’s one of many ways music takes the lead in opera in ways it usually doesn’t in film.

Rhiannon, did writing the libretto and co-composing the music require a change in your songwriting process?

It was a challenge in many ways — the libretto was easy in moments, and incredibly heavy and difficult in others; ultimately it came out as a long-form poem. It’s an art form I never thought I would have a chance to explore, but it suited me.

For the music, I needed to collaborate and was lucky enough to get to work with the incredible composer Michael Abels. I would play something on banjo, sing a passage on my phone, create a four-part choral part on GarageBand, etc. and send it to Michael. What would come back to me were orchestrated moments totally true to the intent I had sent, but with his own flavor and additions throughout. It’s like he could read my mind.

Rhiannon Giddens (Photo by Ebru Yildiz) and Michael Abels (Photo by Eric Schwabel)

Rhiannon Giddens (Photo by Ebru Yildiz) and Michael Abels (Photo by Eric Schwabel)

This opera joins Wayne Shorter and esperanza spalding’s Iphigenia and Errollyn Wallen’s upcoming Quamino’s Map as new operas from Black composers. Do you see a shift in Black artists’ relationship to opera, or is opera becoming less of an exclusive medium for artists to express their ideas?

Michael: This answer isn’t “either/or” but “yes.” There is a definite need for opera to become less exclusive, and that finally seems to be happening. As it does, there is a natural shift in Black artists’ relationship to opera. As the medium becomes more representative of our history and experiences, Black composers will more often consider opera a possible format for their creativity, and Black artists will have more roles from their backgrounds to look forward to singing.

Rhiannon: I think opera has been taken too far from its roots — the distance between opera and folk and vernacular music has never been as wide as it is now. A lot of modern opera, to my ears, is too cerebral and not often friendly to the human voice. As an opera singer, as a banjoist, and as a folk musician, I wanted to write catchy melodies, romantic lines, and arias that young opera singers would want to sing on their recitals, as well as tell Omar’s story. So I think all of the above — the idea of what a composer is, thankfully, expanding; and the willingness to give over stage and space to Black voices is ever more present. Every art form needs a multiplicity of voices to stay vibrant and healthy.


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