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This weekend, the opera Omar made its North Carolina premiere for Carolina Performing Arts in Memorial Hall on campus of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a premiere that was a fervent display of provoking music, history, and cultural symbolism.
The chemistry between the castmates was palpable as they performed songs composed by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels. Giddens' lyrics told a clear story of Omar Ibn Said and his life as a Muslim man enslaved and transported to the United States. Said later wrote a series of Arabic-language works, including his autobiography. Tenor Jamez McCorkle stunned the audience as he portrayed the character of Omar. McCorkle sang beautifully and with clarity, though supertitles were projected above the opera stage to assist anyone looking for additional support with the lyrics.
In Act I, art imitated life several times. As the auctioneer (Adam Klein, tenor) conducted the slave auction, the lyrics and instrumentation sounded fun and light with fanfare. He spoke of the slave in a manner of only seritude, and you could feel the detachment as he sang as though it were just another day on the plantation. In contrast, the male slave spoke on behalf of his wife with sincerity and compassion as she was being auctioned and declared her value. He praised his wife's talents and strengths, and the tempo and expression of the music correlated with the emotion that was attached to his passionate lyrics.
Giddens incorporated "call and response" into the opera, a music form used by field slaves in their work songs or spirituals. Work songs were supervised by overseers and slaves were ordered to sing in a cheerful manner to maintain a faster working pace. This was heard and seen as Omar and his fellow workers sang the upbeat tune "How Long?"
Act II began with a lovely soprano melody that was sung over choral harmonies, and the duets in this act were a treat. Omar and his slave owner Owen (Daniel Okulich, baritone) harmonized their tenor and bass-baritone voices beautifully, as did Fatima (Omar's mother, played by Cheryse McLeod Lewis, mezzo-soprano) and Julie (Laquita Mitchell, soprano) as they used crunchy, dissonant harmonies to encourage Omar to write the book of his life story.
Toward the end of the second act, the supporting cast members walked into the aisles, lined up in their designated places, and sang. Although the harmonies were less balanced than when they sang on stage, depending on whichever voice was located closest to you, this made the production more intimate and audience members felt as though they were a part of the scene.
Symbolism was used throughout the show. The program informed viewers that the music was "sung in English with some Arabic." The costumes and backdrops displayed Arabic writing and one could wonder if these designs were prints from Said's autobiography or other written works. Also, a photo of Omar Ibn Said created out of Arabic print was exhibited on the stage curtain during intermission.
At different times, historical letterpress broadsides were incorporated into the show. During the slave auction scene, an actual "Valuable Slaves at Auction '' letterpress broadside from February 3, 1859 was displayed. The original author was C. E. Girardey & Company, and the advertisement informed the townspeople of an upcoming sale of 20 men, women, and children, their race, age, and skillset. A "Slave Life Insurance" broadside displaying the annual premium for one year based on the slave's age was projected on Owen's plantation house. Subtle yet significant symbols that represented authentic historical moments in time were threaded throughout the opera: the mention of the deity Yamoya; the screen projection displaying field slaves and worn working hands; the Qur'an that Omar loved doubled as Owen's study room and desk; the footage of African Americans dancing throughout the decades; Omar's testimony interwoven into Psalm 23; photos of past and present protests; the slaves dancing in a circle that mimicked ring shout or true shout (a West African circle dance consisting of participants moving in a circle for praise and worship and honoring ancestors); and the fascination that Owen exuded as he watched the slaves rejoice and exclaim in amazement for Taylor (Klein) to "look at them, they can do this all night," which emulated the same intrigue expressed by white abolitionists William Francis Allen, Lucy McKim-Garrison, and Charles Pickard Ware as they enjoyed the slaves' spiritual praise and called it entertainment.&
Omar is a cultural and historical treasure filled with beautiful consonant and dissonant harmonies, wit, unique costume designs, clever multi-use props, and artistic symbolism. I could not think of a better way to spend the last weekend of Black History Month.