Boston Lyric Opera’s production of the recent Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Omar triumphed in a sold-out run at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theater from May 4th-7th. Co-composers Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels brought new life to the opera stage by expanding the choice of whose story deserves to be told. The music of Omar offered both accessibility to opera newcomers and complexity for attuned veterans. Like the story it tells, the music is thoroughly American, drawing from a melting pot of styles ranging from gospel, to blues, to Senegalese music, to Brucknerian brass.
Omar Ibn Said, a Fula Islamic scholar was captured in 1807 from his West African home and transported to Charleston, South Carolina, where he was sold into slavery. In telling the story of a forcefully displaced West African man unable to understand the languages of other African slaves and the English of his slavers, language and the unifying force of spirituality are central themes to Omar. Often Omar (Jamez McCorkle), fails to understand or misinterprets the words of others. While on the Middle Passage, slaves pass around vocal solos that tell their life story, and Omar can only despondently reply with, “I cannot understand you.” In this moment, by choosing a series of solos rather than a chorus, Giddens and Abel’s highlight the otherwise faceless people who have been lost to history. These characters may be inventions, but as dramatic personae they stand strong against erasure.
Within this confusing, alienating, and stifling context of language, faith unifies the slaves and provides Omar reassurance. As an inexplicable, transcendent, and universally understood feeling, music represents faith in the opera. When words fail, music succeeds and unifies. Omar cannot understand the words of the other enslaved people, but the wordless chorus still places him in communion with their humanity. In pain, panic, and desperation, one slave tells his story with a disunified jumbled mess. He cannot articulate what he wants to say, and the words themselves are barely comprehensible, but under his words, “I had a mother once,” the orchestra conveys both to the audience and to Omar his exact meaning, even if we do not understand his words.
The scene on the Middle Passage ends on one of the most expressive parts of the opera. The souls who died while in the passage repeatedly pray, “Yemoya carry us through to the other side.” After several iterations, the prayer seemingly cadences into resolute consonance suggesting an end to the scene. It resumes, however, amidst now aggressive, fortissimo dissonance. Giddens and Abels handled this strong, angry, and challenging scene with intelligent and emotionally gripping composition that simultaneously evoked beauty, revulsion, fear, and the universality of humanity.
Later, while on the plantation of his first vicious owner, the other slaves all sing the words, “Oh lord, how long.” Omar stands confused and silent, unable to understand. After continued repetitions, Omar mishears “how long” as “Allah,” and in joy finally tries to join the chorus. The singing stops abruptly, however, as Omar’s miscommunication and misunderstanding ends the song the moment he enters, thereby causing further alienation.
Omar then encounters his owner Johnson (Daniel Okulitch), who vows to break him; diegetic percussion serves as a whip to underscore his words. Crucially, this moment marks Omar’s first understanding of and response in English, with the words, “Yes, sir…Master.” Now able to understand English, Omar can sing and interact. Giddens and Abels made Omar understand English in the context of cruelty, pain, and above all else power. It is the threat of the whip and the barbarism of Johnson rather than singing on the plantation or the kindness of Julie (Brianna J. Robinson), one of the first characters Omar engages with at the slave market, that teaches Omar English. That Western greed and torment ultimately allow Omar to find agency in his operatic story suggests an important historical critique.
Throughout, while the orchestra glues together disparate styles, traditional classical music, or what might be expected as operatic, only appears to represent the white slavers. Traditional Western harmony first appears in the third scene of Act I at the slave market. Trumpets lead something similar to a chorale during the auction of men, women, and children. The pleasant, consonant chorale juxtaposed the horror of the auction block. Reserving “traditional” operatic sounds for the white slavers again suggests the stance of Giddens and Abels on the future of American opera, while also fascinatingly inverting theatrical expectations.
The Western brass next enters in the second scene of Act II on the plantation of Owen (Okulitch), Omar’s second owner. Owen treats Omar much kindlier than Johnson, and hopes to convert him to Christianity. As Owen preaches about Jesus, Wagnerian brass lines reminiscent of Parsifal’s prelude herald and elevate his words. But the harmony soon takes a turn, and the orchestra becomes crunchier and chromatic, ending in an unexpected minor resolution. The message is clear: Owen may be kinder, but he still owns slaves.
Omar ends with an address to Omar and an apostrophe to the audience. This cathartic and intensely spiritual canon by the entire cast admonishes, “You people of America.” While based on a historical autobiography, beyond its storytelling, Omar draws conscious attention to a message. Before the show began, McCorkle stood in his pedestrian clothing in front of the audience while donning his costume, and the last scene of the opera had McCorkle return to his street clothes. Breaking the fourth wall places emphasis on the opera’s themes: the universality of faith and humanity and giving voices to those who have long been erased.
Director Kaneza Schaal and everyone involved in the BLO’s production of Omar deserves praise for putting on such a thoughtful, emotional, and above all excellent show. Michael Ellis Ingram led a virtuosic orchestra. Set Designer Amy Rubin and Production Designer Christopher Myers created truly innovative sets of cinematic scope. Scenes would often fluidly transition; the underside of a slave ship might morph into a believable slave market, for example. Displaced projections from Video Designer Joshua Higgason and Lighting Designer Lucrecia Briceno and Alejandro Fajardo no doubt enhanced the flats.
Cierra Byrd as Omar’s mother consistently produced heart-wrenching and warm tones. Brianna J. Robinson shined in her role as Julie, rightfully earning applause at the end of her aria. But Jamez McCorkle as Omar, gave the standout performance through his emotive facial expressions and his powerful, clear, and rich voice.
Omar’s recent Pulitzer assures that its message and ideas will reach out widely.
Matthew Winkler is studying music and history at Tufts university. He is a composer and researcher who also plays jazz and classical trumpet.