The Untold Story of Omar ibn Said in Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels’ ‘Omar’

By John Vandevert

The world of new opera is a fascinating place. Many new operas explore the end of time, making cake, or questionable life choices. But others cover historical moments and figures that should be explored.

Composed by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels, their new opera “Omar” looks at the figure Omar ibn Said and his life as an enslaved Muslim in America. Having won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for music, let’s look at the figure behind the opera and the path from script to stage.

The Man Behind the Opera

The man at the heart of the opera is a figure little known today but whose role in American history is immense. Omar ibn Said was born in 1770 in present-day Senegal to a wealthy family who would later become an element in the Imamate of Futa Toro (or Futa Toro), the formal name for the theocratic monarchy (religiously led government based on lines of succession) located in the middle region of Senegal. This region, north of St. James on the far West coast of Africa, was populated by peoples who spoke the Pulaar language and whose cultural focus on religion bore a class of religious scholars known as the Torodbe.

By the early parts of the 1800s, the Futa Toro population were ruled by a select group of families, of which Said’s family was one, and from this elite group of religious intellectual, Said’s interest in Islamic studies, specifically Sufi Islam grew and was developed. However, by the beginning of the 19th century, the Atlantic slave trade was booming. Although the role of America in upholding slavery is well-known, as early as the 14th century, countries in the Middle East, and more specifically Africa, had been participating in slavery, with many of the far eastern African countries enslaving their people until the early 1900s. Slavery touched Futa Toro, however, beginning in 1807 when American slave traders came to the region. While the Slave Trade Act of 1807 was passed in the United Kingdom, in America, legislation that hit international traders passed in 1808, making Said’s the last legal capture of its kind. 

Taken to the coast and put onto giant slave ships, Said and his fellow enslaved people were most likely taken through the Middle Passage to Gadsden’s Wharf in South Carolina. After a brutal master and a failed escape attempt to North Carolina, Said was sold into the ownership of politician James Owen. Exempt from hard labor and slave quarters, he stayed in a private lodge on the property and took on more gentle, household, and scholarly activities thanks to his literacy and intellectual ability. While in jail after his initial capture, he had written Arabic verses on the walls of his jail cell, which shocked his captors, disproving the white myth that all enslaved people were illiterate.

This, combined with his religious devotion, helped save him from the abuses of what could have been a short and painful life. Thanks to Owen, he procured an English translation of the Quran and later, thanks to Francis Scott Key, an Arabic translation of the Bible, which he used to deepen his faith in both Islam and Christianity. Although a devoted follower of Islam, he masked his faith in Christianity, although, showing external ardor for the religion in his attendance at Fayetteville First Presbyterian Church and later baptism in 1821. Being enslaved and Muslim, Said had to make it work religiously, finding ways of merging his religion with Christianity. Said remained under Owen until his death in 1867, having never returned to Africa. 

Said’s Autobiography

Said’s career as a scholar, while uncontested, is pieced together from the 13-15 extant works (created during his life), among them being one of the most important and rare works from the period of American slavery (17th-century to 1865). His works were written in Arabic, and it was known that Said spoke English, although it was broken in its sound. The work on which the opera is based around was his 28-page autobiography entitled, “The Life of Omar ben Saeed, called Morro, a Fullah Slave in Fayetteville, N.C. Owned by Governor Owen.” Written in 1831 when Said was 61 years old, he reflects on his capture from Futa Toro, religious deference, and his thankfulness for the Owens family.

However, as some have rightly pointed out, he could not be vocal about his rejection of enslavement. Hence, he carefully hid his views under the mask of religious talk, petitioning that God created all things as part of one family. The work is in Arabic and frequently quotes the Quran, which grapples with the existence of God and Jesus Christ’s resurrection. In the text, Said calls for universal devotion to God and his teachings, linking Islamic and Christian theological topics under the banner of religious humanism. The text is significant in its hinting at anti-slavery, as in the 1830s, thanks to David Walker, a growing movement against slavery gained considerable traction in the United States. Thus, it is likely Said knew of these developments.

The autobiography is an interesting look into the view of slavery from an anomaly of his times when most enslaved peoples could not read and were seen as chattel. As scholars have noted, given that James Owen was not one for violence against his enslaved and that he was vehemently against the practice as well, there was an incentive for him to have one of the most educated enslaved person at the time write a work that could discourage other owners from harming their enslaved. Such a desire was the direct result of the Southampton Insurrection. Begun by an enslaved person named Nat (1800-1831), owned by Benjamin Turner, he was said to experience supernatural visions which were considered from God.

Beginning in 1831, Walker had started to sense that a rebellion was coming, although by the end, only one woman was killed, with Nat being hanged after a lengthy search and capture. Because Said couldn’t be entirely open about his views and Islamic faith, much of the way the autobiography is written use ambiguous phrasing in the Arabic script. Much of his language is seen to echo Walker’s writing, with the phrase “My name is Omar” becoming a recurring theme in the work and which can be interpreted as a sign of resistance and reclaiming of his identity from the confines of enslavement. One other detail is the way the work starts. Namely, with an apologetic address to his fellow countrymen for forgetting some of the discourse and thoughts he learned when he was younger, “O my brothers, do not blame me.”

From An Idea to the Stage

Operas are not quick endeavors. Especially in the last couple of years, with things such as COVID-19 and lockdown sidelining premieres, operatic productions have had to change their schedules drastically. So too, did Giddens and Abel’s journey. The opera was conceived in 2017 thanks to Zeyba Rahman’s introduction of the autobiography to Spoleto Festival US Director Nigel Redden. Following this, following a performance given by Giddens in 2017, Said is introduced to her. Little did she know that just two years later, in 2019, workshops of some of the opera’s first musical realizations would begin. Choosing to use Said’s autobiography but treat it as an operatic telling, Giddens tasked herself with learning as much as she could about this figure and his religious experience as an enslaved person in America.

One of the central contentions about the project was that it would be an opera, not a direct telling of his life. Thus, figuring out what to embellish and remove became a leading issue in the opera’s preparation. Unfortunately, because of COVID-19, work on the opera changed dramatically, and the 2020 premiere was postponed until the following year. However, this, too, would be rescheduled as Spoleto Festival’s hybrid season for 2021 was not favorable for any operatic premiere. Thus, yet again, the opera was put on hold.

The festival’s director Mena Mark Hanna had a vested interest in seeing the opera debuted. In 2022, the premiere was finally set for Charleston, South Carolina. It went swimmingly, and five opera companies across the country desired to mount the opera in their houses. Focusing on “his physical dislocation and accommodations, but also, mostly, his spiritual reconciliations,” the opera foregrounds Said’s religious principles with the difficulties of slavery and Christian life.

This November, you can see the opera for yourself at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, California.


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