Opera on life of Omar Ibn Said and Karim Sulayman's performance at this year's Spoleto Festival USA

Now approaching its 46th season, Spoleto Festival USA is internationally recognized as America’s premier performing arts festival and takes over Charleston, South Carolina for 17 days and nights each spring.
Opera on life of Omar Ibn Said and Karim Sulayman's performance at this year's Spoleto Festival USA

The Spoleto Festival USA was founded in 1977 by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Gian Carlo Menotti, the late American conductor Christopher Keene, and others who sought to create an American counterpart to their annual Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. 

Always at the forefront of innovation and discovery, this year the Spoleto Festival features two operas with MENA themes and characters at their centre.

The first is the world premiere of Omar, with music by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels, conducted by John Kennedy and directed by Kaneza Schaal. The 135-minutes long opera narrates Omar Ibn Said’s 1831 autobiography, beginning long before the 37-year-old West African scholar was made to board a ship bound for Charleston, South Carolina—the site of his enslavement and sale. And though his memoir ends some 30 years before he was laid to rest, still enslaved, this record of his life and Muslim faith reveals a refusal to be defined or erased by his captors. It’s a seminal work of strength, resistance, and religious conviction—a work underscoring the indelible power of the written word. Omar ibn Said was a Fula Islamic scholar from Futa Toro in West Africa, which is present-day Senegal. He wrote a series of works on history and theology, including his autobiography which gained fame posthumously, and in 1991 a mosque in Fayetteville, North Carolina was renamed Masjid Omar ibn Sayyid in his honour.

The second is also a world premiere, of Unholy Wars, conceived and performed by Karim Sulayman, directed by Kevin Newbury and featuring Persian-American soprano Raha Mirzadegan and American baritone John Taylor Ward. The performance aims at "Reframing the narrative" as the tagline goes and begs the question "When the Crusades are taught in schools, is the humanity of the other—the humanity of the Arabic people—considered?" It's a provocative question to ask, particularly in the American South by a tenor who, although born in Chicago, has Lebanese heritage. The intro to the work on the Festival's website concedes: "In this intimate new work, well-known musical selections surrounding the Holy Wars are stitched together through song, dance, and intricate animation. Yet these European standards, by composers including Monteverdi, Rossi, and Handel, are reframed by the Grammy Award-winning tenor Karim Sulayman to reveal a new story of belonging and the resilience of marginalized people."

For more information about the Spoleto Festival USA and to book tickets, check out their website.

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