From Development server

Omar Unholy Wars 

CHARLESTON, SC
Spoleto USA
6/22

In Review Spoleto Omar hdl 622
Jamez McCorkle, Laquita Mitchell, Cheryse McLeod Lewis and ensemble members in Omar at Spoleto USA
© Leigh Webber

THE WORLD-PREMIERE OPERAS at this year’s Spoleto USA dealt with African and Middle Eastern cultures, in which forcibly subdued inhabitants refused to let oppressors define them and tried to reclaim their humanity.

The overpowering Omar (seen June 2) succeeded at every point. Composers Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels took a self-effacing, enslaved Arabic-speaking man in North Carolina on a journey from subjugation to self-awareness, making his story universal. Unholy Wars (seen June 1), created and performed mostly by Lebanese-American tenor Karim Sulayman, attempted to destroy stereotypes about Arabic people but got no further than condemning them.

Omar would have had its premiere in 2020 had COVID-19 not shut the Spoleto festival down, and last year’s truncated Spoleto could not accommodate it. So Abels and Giddens, who also wrote the libretto, kept fine-tuning their adaptation of the brief, ambiguous memoir by Omar ibn Said. Slaveowner James Owen published Omar’s story in 1831, possibly to calm anti-slavery sentiments that led to the Nat Turner Rebellion that year. Owen took Omar home after finding him in a jail cell in Fayetteville, where he’d covered the walls with Arabic writing while waiting to see if he’d be returned to a cruel master in Charleston. (The opera premiered half a mile from the market where Omar was sold into slavery.)

Omar, an educated man from a prosperous family in Senegal, had been captured after a battle. His memoir tells nearly nothing about growing up in Africa, nothing about the middle-passage journey to America, nothing about his duties as a slave or relationships he had with women, children or family members. It praises Owen’s kin for their kindness and for introducing him to Christianity, though it remains ambiguous about whether he really converted from Islam.

In their retelling of Omar’s story, Giddens and Abels decided his heart remained with Allah while he embraced universal brotherhood and renounced hatred. Jamez McCorkle radiated anguish and dignity as Omar, despite hobbling on a boot enclosing a damaged ankle, and his vibrant tenor voice rode out authoritatively over the heavier moments of orchestration. The composers didn’t add false drama: Omar doesn’t fall in love, escape or denounce harsh captors. He doesn’t even complain during the journey to America, depicted harrowingly by director Kaneza Schaal and production designer Christopher Myers. Because he remains something of a symbol, we get to know him better through two women who aren’t in the book: supportive slave Julie (sweet-voiced Laquita Mitchell) and his mother, Fatima (serene Cheryse McLeod Lewis).

The composers gave most of the straightforward melodies to the two dozen members of the Spoleto Festival Chorus, who put them across clearly. They found room in the score for folk music, North African percussion, hints of Southern spirituals and a declamatory power that at one point reminded me of Wozzeck. It all worked.

Like Giddens and Abels, set designer Amy Rubin and costume designers April Hickman and Micheline Russell-Brown let us draw our own conclusions. Are cottony fragments connecting branches on the Tree of Life a visual reflection of a slave ship’s sails? Are words written on every character’s garment a literal suggestion that we can only be ourselves when we speak our truths aloud? This production is now scheduled to travel to Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and New York before ending up in Chapel Hill, N.C. It shouldn’t be missed.

In Review Spoleto Unholy Wars hdl 622
Karim Sulayman and Coral Dolphin in Unholy Wars at the Dock Street Theatre
© Leigh Webber\

 THE FUTURE OF UNHOLY WARS seems more limited. I can’t imagine it being performed more faithfully to Sulayman’s intentions than at Dock Street Theatre. The small orchestra of early music instruments played beautifully, if often at glacial speeds; Sulayman sang with passion and intelligence; soprano Raha Mirzadegan and baritone John Taylor Ward supported him sensitively. They all stood out in the longest excerpt: Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, in which a Christian crusader loves a Saracen, kills her unknowingly in battle, then baptizes her so she can enter a Christian heaven. But except for “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Handel’s Rinaldo and interchangeable orchestral interludes by modern composer Mary Kouyoumdjian, every selection came from obscure Baroque and Renaissance sources. Most were about the Crusades; though Sulayman referred to later operas in the program notes, he sampled none.

Watching non-speaking dancer Coral Dolphin slither around, crouching and making Alvin Ailey-like thrusts with her arms, added little to the atmosphere. She presumably embodied the suppressed Arabic soul, but why she and others kept washing themselves with water and sand remained anyone’s guess.

Ultimately, the unbroken flow of slow, doleful recitatives became monochromatic, and the energy level never rose above a sigh of resignation. Sulayman made his point long before the seventy minutes passed but didn’t develop it: merely reminding us that western artists stereotyped Middle Easterners centuries ago doesn’t get us thinking about our own lives. —Lawrence Toppman 



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