San Francisco Opera Presents Bay Area Premiere of Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels' Omar, November 5–21
Co-composer and librettist Rhiannon Giddens (photo: Francesco Turrisi/Ebru Yildiz);
Co-composer Michael Abels (photo: Eric Schwabel); Scene from Omar (photo: Cory Weaver/LA Opera)
2023 Pulitzer Prize-Winning Opera and San Francisco Opera Co-Commission Conducted by John Kennedy and Directed by Kaneza Schaal
Reprising His Acclaimed Portrayal of Omar ibn Said, Jamez McCorkle Heads an Ensemble Cast Featuring Brittany Renee, Taylor Raven, Daniel Okulitch and Norman Garrett
John Kennedy (conductor), Kaneza Schaal (director), Jamez McCorkle (Omar), Brittany Renee (Julie),
Taylor Raven (Fatima), Daniel Okulitch (Johnson/Owen), Norman Garrett (Abdul/Abe)
Tickets available at (415) 864-3330 and sfopera.com
November 11 Performance Will Be Livestreamed
SAN FRANCISCO, CA (October 12, 2023) — San Francisco Opera presents the Bay Area premiere of Omar, the new Pulitzer Prize-winning opera by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels. Co-commissioned by San Francisco Opera, this American story comes to the War Memorial Opera House in the production by director Kaneza Schaal and under the baton of conductor John Kennedy who led the world premiere performances at Spoleto Festival USA in 2022. The ensemble cast is headed by tenor Jamez McCorkle, acclaimed creator of the title role, in his Company debut as Omar. San Francisco Opera Chorus Director John Keene prepares the artists of the San Francisco Opera Chorus.
Omar is inspired by the true story of the 19th-century Islamic scholar Omar ibn Said, who was taken from his home in West Africa in 1807, forcibly brought to America through the Middle Passage and sold into slavery in South Carolina. Despite the brutality he faced, Omar maintained his faith and identity, eventually writing his autobiography in Arabic. This 200-year-old text comes vividly to life in this first-ever opera by MacArthur Fellowship recipient Rhiannon Giddens and composer Michael Ables. The expansive sound world in Omar, set to Giddens' libretto, synthesizes the West African kora, bluegrass, spirituals, folk music and jazz into a uniquely American musical language.
Rhiannon Giddens has made a singular, iconic career out of stretching her brand of folk music, with its miles-deep historical roots and contemporary sensibilities, into just about every field imaginable. A two-time GRAMMY Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning singer, instrumentalist and composer, Giddens has centered her work around the mission of lifting up people whose contributions to American musical history have previously been overlooked or erased, and advocating for a more accurate understanding of the country’s musical origins through art. She hosts the Aria Code podcast produced by NPR affiliate station WQXR, which is now in its fourth season, and released her third solo album, You're the One on Nonesuch Records last August. Giddens has appeared on the ABC hit drama Nashville and in Ken Burns' Country Music series on PBS. In addition to the San Francisco Opera premiere of her first opera, Omar, Giddens will perform around the Bay Area in November with the Silkroad Ensemble on their nationwide tour, American Railroad: A Transcontinental Journey.
Pulitzer Prize-winning and Emmy- and Grammy-nominated composer Michael Abels is best known for his genre-defying scores for the Jordan Peele films Get Out, Us and Nope. The score for Us won a World Soundtrack Award, the Jerry Goldsmith Award and was named "Score of the Decade" by The Wrap. Abels' creative output also includes concert works such as the choral song cycle At War with Ourselves for Kronos Quartet and Isolation Variation for violinist Hilary Hahn. He is co-founder of the Composers Diversity Collective, an advocacy group to increase the visibility of composers of color in film, gaming and streaming media.
Omar, hailed as “a sweeping achievement” by The New York Times, comes to the War Memorial Opera House in the staging by Kaneza Schaal. The production design by Christopher Myers emphasizes the power of the written word with costume fabrics, settings and projections displaying multiple African languages, Omar's Arabic and English script and the newspaper ads and historic records from the slavery industry in America. The creative team, all in their Company debuts, also includes choreographer Kiara Benn, set designer Amy Rubin, costume designers April M. Hickman and Micheline Russell-Brown, lighting designer Pablo Santiago and projection designer Joshua Higgason.
Tenor Jamez McCorkle makes his Company debut as Omar. McCorkle, whose repertoire spans the music of Monteverdi, Mozart and Tchaikovsky, created the role of Omar at the opera's world premiere at Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina and has performed in each subsequent presentation of Omar in Chapel Hill, Boston and Los Angeles. Of McCorkle's portrayal, the Los Angeles Times observed: “a role he brings to life in all its spiritual magnificence … [he] has a tenor that vibrates with somber glory … The meditative sincerity of the performance left me with my head bowed."
Soprano Brittany Renee makes her house debut as Julie, a friend to Omar amid the trials of their lives under enslavement. Mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven performs the role of Omar's mother, Fatima, who bestows wisdom on her son through dream sequences. Raven, a former Merola Opera Program participant, made her San Francisco Opera debut as Charmian in the 2022 world premiere of John Adams’ Antony and Cleopatra and appeared with the Company in Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites and Verdi’s La Traviata. Baritone Daniel Okulitch portrays the dual roles of Johnson, an American southerner who acquires Omar at an auction, and Owen, the Christian master who tries to convert Omar.
The ensemble cast also features baritone Norman Garrett in the roles of Omar’s brother, Abdul, and Abe; mezzo-soprano Laura Krumm as Eliza; mezzo-soprano Rehanna Thelwell as Katie Ellen and the Caller; tenor Barry Banks as the Auctioneer and Taylor; current San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow tenor Edward Graves as Amadou; bass-baritone Calvin Griffin as Olufemi and baritone Kenneth Overton as Suleiman.
San Francisco Opera's commitment to expanding the operatic repertoire has produced, to date, 30 commissions/co-commissions by many leading composers including John Adams, Gabriela Lena Frank, Philip Glass, Jake Heggie, André Previn and Bright Sheng. Giddens and Abels' Omar is the second of three San Francisco Opera co-commissions to be presented during the Company's 101st season along with Mason Bates and Mark Campbell's The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs this fall and the American premiere in June 2024 of Innocence by the late Kaija Saariaho.
San Francisco Opera presents Omar in connection with the California Festival: A Celebration of New Music, the inaugural, statewide celebration of the collaborative and innovative musical spirit that thrives in California. The Festival features 100 California-based organizations, including symphony orchestras, chamber music groups, jazz ensembles and choirs, who are performing compelling new works statewide from November 3–19. For information about California Festival participants and presentations, visit cafestival.org.
Sung in English with English supertitles, the six performances of Omar are scheduled for November 5 (2 p.m.), 7 (7:30 p.m.), 11 (7:30 p.m.), 15 (7:30 p.m.) 17 (7:30 p.m.), 21 (7:30 p.m.), 2023.
LIVESTREAM: OMAR, Saturday, November 11 at 7:30 p.m.
San Francisco Opera offers livestreams for each of its productions during the 2023–24 Season. The Saturday, November 11 performance of Omar will be livestreamed at 7:30 p.m. PT. The performance will be available to watch on demand for 48 hours beginning on Sunday, November 12 at 10 a.m. PT. Tickets for the livestream and limited on-demand viewing are $27.50. For tickets and more information about livestreams, visit sfopera.com/digital.
PANEL DISCUSSION: Omar ibn Said: Remembering His Name, Retelling His Story
Commonwealth Club, Wednesday, November 1 at 5:30 p.m.
As San Francisco Opera prepares to present the Pulitzer Prize-winning work Omar, the department of Diversity, Equity and Community invites you to gather for a powerful and thought-provoking panel discussion with the Commonwealth Club of California, the nation's oldest and largest public affairs forum. Mbaye Lo and Carl W. Ernst, authors of the Omar ibn Said biography I Cannot Write My Life, will combine their knowledge and experiences with artists and scholars to explore and discuss the life and astonishing journey of enslaved Islamic scholar Omar ibn Said. For more information, visit commonwealthclub.org.
Following select performances of Omar (November 7, 11, 15, 17 and 21), ticketholders are invited to stay for a post-show conversation that gives space for deeper exploration and processing of Omar ibn Said's life and legacy. Hear firsthand from the artists and creative minds behind the opera.
OPERA PREVIEWS AND PRE-OPERA TALKS
From October 31–November 3, Professor Laura Stanfeld Prichard will present 90-minute overviews of Omar for Bay Area chapters of San Francisco Opera Guild. For a full schedule and tickets, visit sfopera.com/operapreviews.
55 minutes before every performance of Omar, opera and theater artist and scholar Michael Mohammed will present a 20-minute overview of the opera inside the auditorium of the Opera House for ticketholders. A digital recording of Mohammed's pre-opera talk will also be made available at sfopera.com/omar.
*For the complete press release, including cast and calendar listing, open the PDF version above.