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Charleston's Spoleto Festival again postpones highly anticipated new opera 'Omar'

sf2020_Omar_LibraryofCongress.jpg (copy)

Spoleto Festival USA's production of "Omar" is based on an autobiography of the life of Omar Ibn Said, an enslaved Muslim who was brought to Charleston from Senegal. Library of Congress

For the second year, the pandemic has prompted Spoleto Festival USA to waylay its highly anticipated, world premiere opera.

"Omar," a newly commissioned, Charleston-connected work that involves a celebrated creative team, was initially set to debut on May 22, 2020. It was then moved to this year's lineup. It is once again on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic now in its second year.

Over the past few weeks, the festival staff has worked closely with the creative team and with the MUSC Health Back2Business team, weighing and considering various scenarios to devise a way to safely mount the production. However, it ultimately determined that the necessary paring down and reconfiguring would compromise the work, which has been in the making for four years.

A fool's errand

"Until recently, we had not gotten to the point of addressing concerns of performance," said Nigel Redden, general director of Spoleto Festival USA. They had figured out inventive ways to adjust the production, keeping the chorus separate from principals and one another, that "brilliantly used what were necessary precautions ... that were all the more moving." 

However, Redden said the festival felt that as a nonmedical entity, the continued medical assessment of staging an opera, one that originally involved 100 people on stage, was "a fool's errand." 

Additionally, he felt the required adjustments to the audience size would not honor the subject and teller of the story, Omar Ibn Said.

Enslaved in Charleston

The opera, which has direct connections to the festival's home of Charleston, is based on the autobiography of Said, a Muslim scholar born in 1770.

Said was captured in Senegal at the age of 37 and brought to Charleston in 1807. There, he was enslaved and remained as such in the Carolinas until his death in 1863. Much of what is known today about him comes from the life story he penned in Arabic in 1831. It is considered the only surviving, unedited autobiography of an enslaved Muslim in the United States. 

The opera, which is co-commissioned and co-produced by Spoleto Festival USA and Carolina Performing Arts at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, traces Said’s spiritual journey from Africa to his capture and enslavement in the Carolinas.

"I feel in some ways he revealed something about himself, and we have an obligation to take this to as large a group of people as possible," said Redden, citing passages in Said's book in which he urges the people of the Carolinas and America to listen to his story. It is also a story that Redden himself underscores as being very important in this country. 

Sharing his story 

To tell that story, Grammy Award-winning musical artist Rhiannon Giddens was tapped to write the libretto and score, working closely with co-composer Michael Abels to develop the score. Festival Resident Conductor and Director of Orchestral Activities John Kennedy is set to conduct and Charlotte Brathwaite is director.

When "Omar" was originally to premiere in 2020, it was to be the first production mounted in the College of Charleston's Sottile Theatre following the completion of its multimillion-dollar renovation.

Rhiannon Giddens (copy)

Rhiannon Giddens is composer of the opera "Omar," which has been postponed until Spoleto Festival USA 2022. Provided

Due to the pandemic, the premiere was then postponed to 2021. Now, after assessing the feasibility of presenting the work in light of the continued constraints and safety considerations resulting from the pandemic, it has pushed once again and will premiere during the 2022 festival.

In the interim, the festival will continue hosting its free "Exploring Omar" digital conversations, which feature international experts from fields including religion, education, culture and the arts who mine the historical and cultural significance of the work. The series is part of the festival's ETC (Engaging the Community) initiative.

Spoleto ETC will present the virtual "Justice for Omar" at 6 p.m. March 9. Renowned choreographer and director Bill T. Jones will be in conversation with Charleston Poet Laureate Marcus Amaker to address how writers, visual artists and performers exhibit freedom of expression and how they have and can respond to Black trauma. Tamara Butler of the Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston serves as moderator.

Spoleto Festival USA is in the process of finalizing the 2021 festival, which takes place from May 28 to June 13. According to the organization, plans are under way that explore hosting the majority of events at outdoor venues. While the details are not firmed up and the opera is shelved this year, Redden promised the signature mix of theater, dance and music of all kinds that patrons have come to expect. 

Looking forward

The 2021 festival represents Charleston's first foray back into a full-scale festival since the pandemic. Details of this year's program, postponed from the organization's traditional January release date, will be announced April 5. Tickets go on sale to the public April 13.

The opera is arguably Redden's final grand production in his role as general director of Spoleto Festival USA. In September, he announced his retirement after leading the charge in that position over the course of 35 years. His retirement will be effective in October. 

Now, that swan song will have to wait. 

Redden said that while he's sorry he won't be the general director when the work premieres, he is still heavily involved in the planning for the 2022 festival.

He'll be there as a spectator, as he was back in 1984, when he was so taken by what he saw that he determined he'd like to run it. 

For more information on Spoleto Festival USA and to register for Spoleto ETC events, visit

Follow Maura Hogan on Twitter at @msmaurahogan.

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