Spoleto Festival USA on Wednesday announced its opera programming for the 46th season, taking place in Charleston from May 27th to June 12th. Reflecting Spoleto’s founding vision and commitment to contemporary innovation and experimentation, the works also herald the Festival’s next era under the leadership of Mena Mark Hanna.
The centerpiece of Spoleto’s upcoming season is the long-awaited world premiere of Omar, with music by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels. Opera programming also includes tenor Karim Sulayman’s Unholy Wars, a multidisciplinary work that interweaves early baroque period pieces about the Crusades sung from a contemporary Arab American perspective, as well as Yuval Sharon’s newest operatic revision: a bold retelling of Labohème, which sets Puccini’s masterpiece from end to start.
“This season, Spoleto is purposefully expanding the traditional opera canon,” says Hanna. “Each production, in its own way, rethinks the standard practice and repertoire of opera, questioning how it has traditionally been performed and what it can mean today.”
Spoleto’s two world premieres in particular—Omar and Unholy Wars—aim to challenge received narratives. “Omar’s story, for instance, is not simply a reckoning with this country’s past—it’s a reclamation of history,” says Hanna. “It’s a story of the foundation of this country and one that platforms the marginalized at center stage. For these reasons, it’s all the more important that it receives its world premiere here in Charleston, a city that served as one of the main harbors of the Transatlantic slave trade.”
To further examine themes from the operas as well as additional 2022 season programming, the Festival is again hosting a virtual discussion series addressing the arts’ connection and intersection with religion, education, social justice, and identity politics. This season’s series is moderated by New York-based theologian Hussein Rashid—an educator and academic whose research focuses on Muslim and American pop culture—and will feature an assortment of artists, authors, historians, and thought leaders from around the globe. The first discussion, held in December 14, 2021, will highlight the lives of several African Muslims in 18th- and 19th-century America, including Salih Bilali, Bilali Mohammed, and Ibrahima Abdur Rahman. This and future discussions, plus links for registration, will be available on spoletousa.org.
Details for each opera follow. The remainder of Spoleto’s 2022 season will be announced on February 11, 2022, with tickets available to the public beginning February 22, following a donor pre-sale.
Music by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels
Libretto by Rhiannon Giddens
Directed by Kaneza Schaal
Conducted by John Kennedy
Jamez McCorkle, Omar
Cheryse McLeod Lewis, Omar’s mother
Laquita Mitchell, Julie
By 1808, Charleston’s ports alone recorded more than 100,000 West Africans who had been stolen from their homelands, whose brutal vanishings left families and generations to come wondering of their whereabouts and existences. Omar, a new opera based on the life and 1831 autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, tells one such story.
Opening in Senegal, the opera’s narrative traces Omar Ibn Said’s spiritual journey from his life in West Africa to his enslavement in the Carolinas. A Muslim African scholar, Said was 37 years old when he was captured in Futa Toro and brought to Charleston. His story is one of strength, resistance, and religious conviction, a story of truth and of faith.
Upon arrival in the United States, Said was sold to a Charlestonian, but escaped and fled to North Carolina, where he was recaptured, sent to jail, and then resold to James Owen, the brother of one of the state’s governors. Said penned his autobiography in Arabic in 1831. It is considered the only surviving autobiography of an enslaved person in the United States written in Arabic and therefore unedited. According to many scholars, as many as 30 percent of the enslaved Africans who arrived in the colonies, and subsequently the United States, were Muslim, a largely unexplored truth in modern American discussions of slavery.
Rhiannon Giddens, a Grammy Award winner and MacArthur Fellow known for exploring the legacy of African American folk traditions, has created the libretto. Giddens spoke about the opera: “To have the opportunity to craft an opera around Omar Ibn Said is a dream come true that I didn’t even know I had until I was deep in the thick of it. I realized I am a mere shepherd of this work—what is coming through me is truer than anything I could think up on purpose. This is my way, of the possible many, many ways, through the story that Omar represents. He was a remarkable man whose words speak to us beyond generations. Bringing this music to life with the supremely talented and collaborative composer Michael Abels has been nothing short of fantastic. I’ve learned much from Michael and from Omar, and I can only be honored that I have had a hand in bringing this version of his life to the operatic stage.”
Giddens has co-composed the score with Michael Abels, an American composer perhaps best known for his work in award-winning films including Get Out and Us. Musically, the work incorporates West-African traditions with conventional Western opera instrumentation. It is written for a cast of 8 soloists with a full choir and orchestra. “Omar’s story demonstrates the power religious belief has to nurture and uplift the spirit under the direst circumstances,” says Abels. “The unavoidable postponement of the premiere due to the pandemic provided the opportunity for Rhiannon and me to enhance the storytelling and music even more. I’m excited beyond words to finally be able to share Omar’s journey with Spoleto audiences.”
Acclaimed opera and theater artist Kaneza Schaal leads the work’s direction. “The West has a fantasy of its singularity; it imagines itself as constant and fixed. Opera lost itself to that lie,” says Schaal, a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow. “This new work, about Omar Ibn Said, brings the opera back to its true self—a form built on hundreds of years of cultural exchange, and one that has always been deeply hybrid. It’s a place big enough for the contradiction, violence, and holiness of Said’s journey.”
In this intimate work from Grammy Award winning tenor Karim Sulayman, selections from the early baroque period are stitched together to reveal a compelling story of the Crusades. The narrative shifts, however, as the works—originally written through a European lens by composers including Monteverdi, Salamone Rossi, Handel, d’India, and Giulio and Francesca Caccini—are sung from a contemporary Arab American perspective, examining the Western opera canon’s relationship to the Middle East.
“This is a story about the resilience of marginalized people everywhere, and the reclamation of our own stories,” says Sulayman, a first generation American from Lebanese parents. “In our post-9/11 world, I’ve been faced with my otherness more than ever before—the recipient of questions or jokes tinged with menace. For centuries, the Middle East has been at the center of immense conflict—all under the pretense of God’s name—and these wars rage on. My aim is to delve into racial inequities that ravage our history and our present moment. Music can create a space without borders; this is an opportunity to create a sense of belonging.”
Accompanying Sulayman is an ensemble of Baroque music specialists, who will also perform original interstitial compositions. The multidisciplinary performance, directed by Up Until Now Collective’s Kevin Newbury, incorporates choreography as well as video animation and projections by Syrian visual artist Kevork Mourad.
Unholy Wars is co-produced by Spoleto Festival USA and Up Until Now Collective. It receives its world premiere at Spoleto Festival USA.
Music by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica
Directed by Yuval Sharon
Conducted by Vimbayi Kaziboni
Set Design by John Conklin
Costume Design by Jessica Jahn
Lighting Design by John Torres
Matthew White, Rodolfo
Lauren Michelle, Mimi
Troy Cook, Marcello
Brandie Sutton, Musetta
One of opera’s most widely performed tragedies receives a bold new retelling in this co-production between Spoleto Festival USA, Michigan Opera Theatre (MOT), and Boston Lyric Opera. In a historic first, director Yuval Sharon sets Puccini’s La bohème in reverse order—starting with Act IV and ending with Act I—extracting hope from tragedy, life from death, and love from loneliness. This adventurous production is designed by John Conklin, one of the foremost principal figures in American stage design.
Sharon, MOT’s recently named artistic director and co-founder of Los Angeles-based opera company The Industry, will stage the premiere in Detroit before it travels to Charleston and, subsequently, Boston. A MacArthur Fellow and one of the most innovative names in opera today, Sharon has been hailed as “opera’s disrupter in residence” (The New York Times). He is widely known for city-spanning operas and immersive site-specific works, staging operas in moving vehicles and parking garages, amongst many other non-traditional performance spaces.
About La bohème, Sharon says: “Reordering a performance of La bohème—to begin with the end and end with the beginning—means working back from devastation towards hope and love. It means listening with fresh ears to a piece that falls often into predictability. Reemerging from the pandemic and returning indoors to see live opera requires all of us to transform our habits, and I believe this is precisely the moment to reexamine our connection to these masterpieces. For those who know La bohème so deeply, this may open a new door to experiencing the work in a new way. And for people who are unfamiliar, it will be a beautiful entry point.”
La bohème receives its premiere at the Detroit Opera House on April 2, 2022. Followings its performances at Spoleto, the opera will run in during Boston Lyric Opera’s 2022/2023 season.