CHARLESTON, S.C. — Wander the streets of this Southern city, and you might notice a warping of time and place: a Porsche parked in the driveway of a fastidiously preserved antebellum mansion; a memorial to American Revolution neighboring one to the secession that spurred the Civil War; a horse-drawn carriage taking tourists past cobblestone streets on their way back to a Carnival cruise ship.
Time is no more stable among the three opera productions at the Spoleto Festival USA, which continues here through June 12. A world premiere, “Omar,” is both specific to history and freely anachronistic; while, on another stage, a classic love story, “La Bohème,” is told in reverse; and, nearby, the Crusades are given a modern critique by way of the Baroque in “Unholy Wars.”
In all, opera is treated as an act of liberation — a fitting debut for Mena Mark Hanna, the festival’s new general director, who comes from a scholarly background that involved interrogating colonialism’s legacy in classical music. He inherited “Omar,” by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels, but he made it this year’s centerpiece, and surrounded it with works that, like it, are approachable yet refuse to accept or adhere to convention.
“Omar” is a homecoming of sorts for Giddens, a conservatory-trained singer who made her reputation as a folk musician of omnivorous inspiration. This project, she recently told The New York Times, is “a return to opera, but on my own terms.”
She wasn’t kidding. Only a musician like Giddens could have created “Omar,” for which she wrote the libretto and composed in recorded drafts — she sang and accompanied herself — that were then orchestrated by Abels, with an ear for subtle connections and propulsive drama. Their score, nimbly handled by the conductor John Kennedy and the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra, is a melting pot inspired by bluegrass, hymns, spirituals and more, with nods to traditions from Africa and Islam. It’s an unforced ideal of American sound: expansive and ever-changing.
Giddens and Abels’s sweeping achievement is all the more remarkable because of the intimate story it tells: of Omar Ibn Said, a Muslim scholar who was captured in what is now Senegal and sold into slavery at a market in Charleston — a history he later documented in an autobiographical essay while living in North Carolina, still as property but with relative peace.
A rich American portrait emerges from Said’s life, in Giddens’s interpretation of that essay. He bore witness to the dangerous Middle Passage of the slave trade and represented a largely unacknowledged community of Muslims brought to the United States. Giddens imagines him on the sidelines of a family being torn apart at the slave market. And, in a tribute to a pillar of Black American life, he is often surrounded by a chorus.
That ensemble — tireless members of the Spoleto Festival USA Chorus — carries this opera, in a way that inevitably recalls Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” which is set in Charleston and is often spoken of as the Great American Opera, despite its complicated legacy as the work of white men who long provided crucial work for Black singers. Works like “Omar” — such as Anthony Davis’s recently revived “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” and Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” — offer an alternative: fresher, more honest depictions of Black life on an operatic scale.
Although “Porgy” is firmly in the repertory, “Omar” at least has the opportunity to stake a claim alongside it: Next season, the opera will travel to Los Angeles and Boston, then San Francisco, Chicago and, appropriately, North Carolina. Moving, joyous and in its final moments intensely spiritual, it should not have trouble winning over audiences, as it did on Friday.
Kaneza Schaal’s production is as plain-spoken as the libretto, yet absorbingly vivid in Christopher Myers’s scenic design, for which he made prints from Said’s manuscripts in English and Arabic, as well as from woodcuts of slavery documents and runaway ads. Characters wear language on their clothing, and words cover walls; the look of the show propels the story as much as the score does toward the climax of Said’s burning need to write.
Language is crucial to the plot as well. Said, sung by the tenor Jamez McCorkle with delicate lyricism in prayer and steely power in adversity, arrives in Charleston unable to understand anyone. Giddens cleverly renders his first owner’s text as Said would have heard it; he and the slaver, Johnson, sing discrete lines in counterpoint, never in the same language, until, under the threat of violence, Said lets out an acquiescent phrase, his first words in English.
Johnson is sung by the baritone Malcolm MacKenzie, who returns — after Said escapes his cruel plantation — in Act II as the more benevolent owner Owens. He respects Said’s passionate faith but all but forces him to convert to Christianity. This casting decision makes a clear point: Kind or not, a slaver is still a slaver.
Those two men may be in control of Said’s life, but he is more guided by dreams of his mother, Fatima (the mezzo-soprano Cheryse McLeod Lewis), who was killed in the raid that led to his kidnapping; and Julie (the soprano Laura Mitchell, a smooth-voiced and soothing presence), who escapes from the slave market in Charleston but urges Said to meet her in Fayetteville, N.C., at Owen’s property. When they reunite there, she explains why she was helping him to begin with, in the opera’s finest aria, which begins with the line “My daddy wore a cap like yours.”
When she gives Said a new head wrap, to replace the one that had been ripped off his head at the slave market, he realizes that he must reconcile his religious devotion with the existence he is bound to, and tell his story in writing. The opera then ends with a long choral meditation, with singers spread throughout the auditorium, conducted by McCorkle from the stage. When the curtain — which before the show had been decorated with a projection of Said’s face — comes down, his likeness is joined by a dense collage reflecting the accumulation of his experience, with images that resonate across time to the present.
George Shirley was the Wanderer, a new character created for Yuval Sharon’s staging of “La Bohème.”Credit…Leigh Webber/Spoleto Festival USA
If “Omar” looks forward, then Yuval Sharon’s staging of “La Bohème,” which opened on Saturday, does the opposite, presenting the opera’s four acts in reverse. (The production, which premiered at Detroit Opera last month, will travel next to Boston and Philadelphia.) With no intermission and small cuts to streamline it for a brisk hour and 45 minutes, it was moved along by Kensho Watanabe’s lush yet flowing music direction and John Conklin’s minimal, quickly adaptive set design.
To help situate the audience, Sharon introduces the Wanderer, a spoken role played by the 88-year-old George Shirley, the first Black tenor to perform in a leading role with the Metropolitan Opera. As the acts rewind, he stops the action to ask questions that make Puccini’s tragedy more about the why than the what of it all. Rodolfo could have gone back inside in Act III; Musetta could have remained silent at Café Momus; Mimì could have just left Rodolfo’s apartment. This is a production of decisive moments.
More than ever, “La Bohème” was also an opera of objects. A bonnet, a muff, a coat — these things are so crucial to the tragic climax that when they are introduced earlier in the story, they too begin to feel like turning points. And, in Sharon’s reading, amid the stormy lovers — Rodolfo (Matthew White) and Mimì (an aching Lauren Michelle); Marcello (Troy Cook) and Musetta (Brandie Sutton) — there is one steady relationship: Colline (Calvin Griffin) and Schaunard (Benjamin Taylor), playful companions who here might be a little something more.
Raha Mirzadegan, Coral Dolphin, Karim Sulayman and John Taylor Ward in “Unholy Wars,” a staged program created by Sulayman.Credit… Leigh Webber/Spoleto Festival USA
“Unholy Wars,” a staged program created by the tenor Karim Sulayman that opened on Sunday, also recasts the familiar. A child of Lebanese immigrants, Sulayman is interested in how Europe has historically decided what constitutes the Middle East, and how it is depicted in Western art. To examine the Crusades, he has turned to Baroque music, with new, mostly prerecorded interludes composed by Mary Kouyoumdjian.
The production — directed by Kevin Newbury, and incorporating dance (performed by Coral Dolphin and choreographed by Ebony Williams) and animated projections (by the artist Kevork Mourad) — unfolds in effectively three parts: an exploration of the Middle Eastern “other” in Western works; a dramatic account of Monteverdi’s “Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda”; and a mournful denouement that attempts to make peace with a musical tradition both violent and sublime.
Sulayman performs throughout, joined by the bass-baritone John Taylor Ward and the soprano Raha Mirzadegan, who embody the doomed lovers in “Combattimento,” a story Sulayman recounted with gripping fervor and expressivity that rendered surtitles unnecessary. He ends the evening — at just 70 minutes, still a song too long — with what seem a tired choice: Handel’s “Lascia ch’io pianga.” But here, at the end of a personal journey through lyrics like “She is Black but beautiful,” the aria feels like an urgent plea from Sulayman to be left alone to reflect.
Reflect and, perhaps, break free from the long, knotty tendrils of history. It’s a struggle that would have been familiar to Omar Ibn Said, one that plays out in the streets of this city — even throughout this country, in our or any time.