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Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels's Opera, Omar, Awarded 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Music

Premiered in May 2022 at the Spoleto Festival USA, the opera has been seen by audiences in Los Angeles and Boston; it will travel to San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago in future seasons.

American tenor Jamez McCorkle in the title role of Omar at Spoleto USA

© Leigh Webber

OMAR, an opera by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels, has been awarded the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Announced today by Columbia University on the recommendation of the eighteen-member Pulitzer Prize Board, this year’s winners are the the 107th class of Pulitzer Prize recipients and span twenty three categories, including works of journalism, books, drama and music.

Omar premiered in May 2022 at Spoleto Festival USA, and received subsequent performances at LA Opera and Southern Futures at University of Chapel Hill at North Carolina; earlier this month, Boston Lyric Opera presented three performances of the work. It will also be seen at San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago in future seasons. The work was originally co-commissioned and co-produced by Spoleto Festival USA and Carolina Performing Arts at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Sung in English and Arabic, the work is based on the 1831 autobiography of Omar ibn Said (1770–1864), the only known only known Arabic autobiography by a person enslaved in the United States. Said born into a wealthy family in Futa Toro, present-day Senegal, and was a scholar before being enslaved and transported to the United States in 1807.

Reviewing the LA Opera performances for OPERA NEWS, Simon Williams called Omar, “a landmark in the development of American opera,” and noted, “Few modern operas have focused so intently, but without forced religiosity, on the nature of faith as Omar. […] Although it deals with personal, even intimate matters of faith, it is also a work that speaks with a public voice.”

In announcing the award, the Pulitzer selection committee described the opera as, “a musical work that respectfully represents African as well as African American traditions, expanding the language of the operatic form while conveying the humanity of those condemned to bondage.”

Each year Pulitzer Prize recipients are selected by more than 100 distinguished judges drawn from journalists, executives from American media outlets, scholars, historians and artists. The Music Prize is bestowed for a distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United states during the year; the piece is selected by a jury comprised of three composers, one music critic and one presenter of musical works, who meet in New York to listen to recordings and examine the scores of compositions. Also receiving nominations for this year’s prize were Tyshawn Sorey’s Monochromatic Light (Afterlife), commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Houston’s Rothko Chapel, and Jerrilynn Patton’s Perspective, a morphing, seven-movement work recorded by Third Coast Percussion.

Giddens, a North Carolina native, was a founding member of the Grammy-winning Black string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, for which she sang, played the fiddle and the banjo. She has also released two solo albums, two recordings with multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi and two recordings as part of the Smithsonian Folkways collection. In 2017, she was named as a recipient of that year’s MacArthur “Genius” Grants, with the MacArthur foundation noting: “Giddens’s drive to understand and convey the nuances, complexities, and interrelationships between musical traditions is enhancing our musical present with a wealth of sounds and textures from the past.” In 2019, the Nashville Ballet presented the premiere of Giddens’ score for Lucy Negro, Redux, a dance work inspired by Caroline Randall Williams’s book of the same name and choreographed by the company’s artistic director artistic director, Paul Vasterling. Giddens is an alumna of the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics and Oberlin Conservatory at Oberlin College, where she graduated in 2000 having studied opera.

Michael Abels has written the acclaimed scores of Jordan Peele’s films Get Out, Us and Nope, with the music for Us having won a World Soundtrack Award, the Jerry Goldsmith Award, a Critics Choice nomination, multiple critics awards and having been named “Score of the Decade” by The Wrap. His other projects have included the scores for Bad Education, Nightbooks and the docu-series Allen v. Farrow. He is the also composer of the on-camera music heard in the current release Chevalier, about Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and wrote the score for Landscape With Invisible Hand.

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