With Her First Opera, Rhiannon Giddens Returns to Her Roots

After Omar arrives in America, much of the opera’s drama is channeled through what the production’s director, Kaneza Schaal, called “a contest of languages,” involving much translation and mistranslation. When other enslaved people sing “Oh, Lord, how long,” Omar hears “Allah.” When a slave owner asks Omar to write the “Lord is my shepherd” in Arabic, what he actually writes (in a script the owner can’t read) is “I want to go home.” Omar’s journey, translated into opera, becomes about finding a language to hold together all that he experiences.

Giddens knows about that search. If writing about Senegal was a stretch for her, several of the scenes were familiar territory. When Omar arrives at a North Carolina plantation, there’s a frolic, complete with a caller telling the dancers when to promenade. It’s like a corn-shucking, a barn dance — an earlier iteration of the tradition Giddens learned from Thompson.

The sound of “Omar,” however, is always that of an orchestra. “I wrote a lot of it on banjo, but nobody’s playing banjo in it,” Giddens said. “The orchestra becomes a banjo, and that’s the most radical move.”

While composing, Giddens recorded tracks, singing and accompanying herself, that she sent to Abels. “She has a wonderful gift for melody, but what people may not know is how great she is at creating character with her voice,” he said. “She would sing Omar or Julie or the auctioneer, and the personality was clear in the music.”

Abels then took those themes and orchestrated them, sometimes making the harmonic language more complex and applying the sense of pacing he’s developed writing for film. The result was a blend of their voices, and, Giddens said, “the genius of Michael is figuring out where the lines blur.”