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'Omar': A cultural opera hits the stage this weekend

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Omar will make its North Carolina debut on Feb. 25 and 26 as a part of Carolina Performing Arts. The opera tells the story of Omar ibn Said, a West African scholar who was forced to board a slave ship headed for Charleston, South Carolina.

This weekend at Memorial Hall, the Carolina Performing Arts will be showing "Omar" – an opera following the story and life of Islamic scholar Omar ibn Said. 

Leading up to the North Carolina premier, UNC has hosted several events and discussions surrounding the historical context behind the opera, delving into who he was, his impact and his connection to the University. 

Said was born in West Africa and was forced into enslavement in Charleston, S.C. He eventually escaped to N.C., where he was enslaved again in Fayetteville until his death. He wrote the only known autobiography written in Arabic by an enslaved person in the U.S.

The opera’s creator, Grammy award-winning Rhiannon Giddens, is originally from N.C. and is currently an artist-in-residence with CPA. She worked with Emmy-nominated composer Michael Abels, to study Said's original texts and set his story to music on the stage. 

"All across the country, other presenting organizations bring this story of Omar Ibn Said to light for large audiences through the arts. I mean, this is a way of the arts making a historical intervention so that Omar Ibn Said becomes a household name," Amanda Graham, associate director of engagement at CPA, said. 

"Omar" will be touring across the nation, but its ties to N.C. are what make it special to campus, she said. While he was enslaved in the state, Said's slaveholders, the Owen brothers, had affiliations with the UNC campus. So, many scholars believe that it was possible that Omar actually spent time at the University, she said.  

Several of Said’s original manuscripts reside in Wilson Library Special Collections. These texts will be available for viewing on three dates in the coming weeks for the campus community to see and learn more about the inspiration behind the opera. 

The opera's music has a deep connection to Black folk music. Giddens said that through the opera, she is attempting to defy a false narrative that Appalachian folk music comes from mostly white musicians, erasing Black contributions to the genre. 

“'Omar' at its heart, is doing a couple of things,” Giddens said at a pre-show event on Thursday. “It is talking about Omar, the man and his journey. And that's incredibly important, but it's also talking about the world that he goes into which is a multilayered, multifaceted world of music that we no longer know.”

Giddens aims to bring modern elements into the opera, like homages to modern dance, and inclusion of strong female characters, although scholars know little about the women in Said's life, Graham said. 

CPA partnered with several campus organizations to put on events throughout the week that discuss the historical significance of "Omar."  

“We were hoping that the scholars in the room would contextualize who Omar was, the time period that he lived in and why he and his story are relevant today,” Graham said. “But then, they also made connections to economics, to religious studies, to sociology, even to public health. So, just all of these ways of both acknowledging that an artwork is relevant beyond the arts, but then also that the arts are a way of opening up all of these other conversations.”

 On Tuesday, Youssef Carter, assistant professor of religious studies at UNC, and William Spriggs, chief economist of the trade union AFL-CIO, discussed the historical conditions of slavery that Said experienced and his story’s connection to contemporary issues of racism and religion. 

Giddens said that she spent a lot of time reading Said's texts and familiarizing herself with the Quran in order to incorporate spiritual aspects into the opera while honoring his writings. Carter spoke of the religious aspect of the show and expressed hope that the play remains respectful of references to Islamic religious text in the opera. 

Carter said that Said represents a unique character in history due to his background and experiences. 

He sort of betrays this notion of the African as a kind of archetype as being a person with no history or a person who does not come from civilization, a person who is uneducated,” Carter said. 

By making the opera accessible to younger audiences, Giddens said she hopes it inspires future generations that anyone can make an opera, no matter who they are. Although the show has already sold out, the viewing dates in Wilson Library are still open. 

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