Review: “Omar” is Bold and Magnificent

Jamez McCorkle as Omar in LA Opera's 2022 West Coast premiere of "Omar" Photo: Cory Weaver

Omar is a bold and magnificent new opera, reminding us why it’s just as important to nurture fresh stories while continuing to enjoy the classics. Inspired by the autobiographical writings of Islamic scholar, Omar Ibn-Said (1770-1864), it depicts the heart wrenching journey of his enslavement when he is torn from his native West Africa (present-day Senegal) and transported to Charleston, South Carolina.

There are important reminders and revelations here. Omar represents the scores of Muslim slaves who helped build America and enrich white people. Historians have estimated that as many as thirty percent of the slaves brought from Africa were Muslim. Omar’s writing, which ends about 30 years before he was laid to rest (still a slave) rekindles their horrors as they suffered wrenching family separations, the inhumane Middle Passage, and the hubris of white masters who, while subjecting them to abominable conditions, saw themselves as saviors through Christ. Through his tribulations, Omar never gives up on Allah, apparently practicing the “taqiyah,” while pouring his heart out into his journals in ravishing Arabic.

Omar is a bold and magnificent new opera, reminding us why it’s just as important to nurture fresh stories while continuing to enjoy the classics.

The opera, in English with some Arabic, is superbly paced and has a strong cinematic quality thanks to a formidable production team that is as front and center in this production as the cast. In a time when productions are being relentlessly modernized to the ire of many purists, Omar gives us an opera replete with the features that have earned the genre its grand, sumptuous reputation. Two-time Grammy winner, Rhiannon Giddens, has written a rousing libretto and co-composed the sweeping score with film composer and orchestrator, Michael Abels (Get OutNope and Us.), which is passionately rendered by conductor, Kazem Abdullah, making his LA Opera debut. Amplifying them are the stunning design by Christopher Myers and Amy Rubin, the breathtaking projections by Joshua Higgason, the inventive calligraphed costumes by April M. Hickman and Micheline Russell-Brown, and the moody lighting by Pablo Santiago.

Briana Hunter as Katie Ellen, Jacqueline Echols as Julie and Jamez McCorkle as Omar in “Omar” Photo: Cory Weaver / LA Opera

Tenor, Jamez McCorkle (Porgy and Bess, The Return of Ulysses) is a mesmerizing Omar with palpable gravitas and calm depth, his voice as tender as it is searingly poignant. Mezzo Soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms (Giustino, Finding Wright) makes her triumphal LA Opera debut as his loving mother, Fatima, who, though killed at the beginning of Act I by the slave pillagers, continues to guide and reassure him posthumously. Tenor, Barry Banks skillfully elicits humor despite his dastardly function as the Auctioneer.

— Riobo / Dhalla

Omar” plays at LA Opera through November 13th. Tickets and information HERE.