Rhiannon Giddens Commissioned by Spoleto Festival USA to Write Full-Length Opera for 2020 Season
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10 June 2019

Rhiannon Giddens Commissioned by Spoleto Festival USA to Write Full-Length Opera for 2020 Season

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RHIANNON GIDDENS, a MacArthur Genius Grant-recipient and Grammy Award-winning singer, violinist, banjo player and musicologist, has been commissioned by Spoleto Festival USA and Carolina Performing Arts at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to write a full-length opera based on the life of Omar Ibn Said, an enslaved Muslim-African man who was brought to Charleston in 1807.

The commission, announced today by Spoleto, is scheduled to open the festival's 2020 season before traveling to Carolina Performing Arts. Co-composed by Michael Abels, the yet untitled work will feature a libretto by Giddens, who has conducted extensive research and interviews with numerous religious leaders and scholars in an effort to faithfully dramatize Ibn Said's life. According to the festival, the opera will be written for conventional Western orchestra instruments, but will incorporate West African musical traditions. John Kennedy will conduct the premiere of Charlotte Brathwaite's production. Jamez McCorkle has been tapped to sing the title role and Daniel Okulitch will portray the Master. 

Giddens, who studied opera and vocal performance at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, is a founding member of North Carolina-based Carolina Chocolate Drops in addition to having released esteemed two solo albums. Her music and performances explore the legacy of American-American folk-music traditions, bluegrass, old-time string bands, country, gospel and Americana. 

"My work as a whole is about excavating and shining a light on pieces of history that not only need to be seen and heard, but that can also add to the conversation about what's going on now," she said in a press release issued today by Spoleto. "This is a story that hasn't been represented in the operatic world—or in any world. [...] Ibn Said's autobiography is an extraordinary work, and his story is one that's absolutely crucial to tell." 

The opera, which will open in Senegal, will chart Omar Ibn Said's spiritual journey from his life in West Africa to his arrival in Charleston's Gadsden's Wharf—where more than 100,000 enslaved West Africans were brought to America—and his subsequent bondage in the Carolinas. After being sold to a Charlestonian in 1807, Ibn Said escaped to North Carolina, but was eventually recaptured and imprisoned before being sold to James Owen, a brother of the state's governor. Ibn Said's biography, dating from 1831, is regarded as the only surviving, unedited autobiography of a Muslim slave written in Arabic in the United States. After being held in private collections, the Library of Congress acquired the work in 2017 and, earlier this year, it was translated into English and digitized. 

"This opera gives us a way to look at Charleston in a more comprehensive way," said Spoleto Festival general director Nigel Redden. "An in exploring Charleston's history, we're exploring America's history." spacer

More information can be found at Spoleto Festival USA



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