Arts & Humanities, Campus News

Meet ‘Omar’ co-composer Michael Abels

Composer for Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winner “Get Out,” Abels discusses working with Rhiannon Giddens on their new opera.

Michael Abels
Michael Abels

“Omar,” an opera based on the autobiography of Omar ibn Said, an enslaved African Muslim brought to the Carolinas, makes its North Carolina debut on Feb. 25 in Memorial Hall. Musician Rhiannon Giddens, artist-in-residence with Carolina Performing Arts’ Southern Futures initiative, wrote the libretto, or text for the opera. She and Michael Abels, a composer best known for his work scoring director Jordan Peele’s films “Get Out,” “Us” and “Nope,” worked together to compose the opera’s music.

The Well spoke with Abels about “Omar,” Giddens and the importance of telling stories that speak to all of us.

How did you meet Rhiannon Giddens? What was it like working with her?

Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston reached out to Rhiannon to ask her about the possibility of using Omar ibn Said’s story as a basis for an opera and if she would be interested in writing it. She agreed and then reached out to me to ask if I’d be interested in collaborating on that. What she didn’t know was that it had always been a lifelong dream to compose an opera. I instantly said yes — not only for that reason but also because Rhiannon is a one-of-a-kind, uniquely gifted artist, and after hearing her, I was an instant fan, as I think everyone who hears her is. How we came together was remarkably easy and kismet.

I began by asking myself, “What does she need from me for this piece to manifest?” She’s a trained opera singer — that’s what her degree is in — so she knows the operatic canon from a singer’s perspective. We both had similar ideas about what a good opera looks, feels and sounds like and offers to a listener. Because we both are very appreciative of each other’s artistic process, we were able to collaborate readily. Most of the challenge came in finding the time in each of our schedules to work on the opera as opposed to her next album or tour, or my latest film score.

How did you and Giddens strike a work balance?

The libretto is all Rhiannon’s, including some quotes from Omar’s autobiography, but not only the words themselves but the dramatic structure of the story — the dramaturgy — is all hers as well. I think she did an incredible job finding the soul and the heart of the man from the autobiography. She’s also an extremely gifted songwriter and within her voice, she can embody every type of character and range of emotions and musical genre. She’s just an unbelievable chameleon in that way. Her natural way of composing is to play her banjo and her fiddle and sing. It appears to be very spontaneous, at least a lot of it, but it’s because that’s her gift and she’s a performer.

I would begin by transcribing recordings that she sent me. The process of actively writing down music that you hear requires you to really get inside that music and understand how it works. That was a great way for me to creatively bathe in the DNA of how her music works so that when it was time to write myself, I could paint with her colors, so to speak.

We are co-composers, but the work is written in a singular artistic voice. We intend to defy your attempts to assign different phrases to each person, in spite of the natural human instinct to want to do that.

CPA and the UNC Department of Music invite you to an open classroom on “Omar,” featuring Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels in conversation with Naomi André, the David G. Frey Distinguished Professor of Music; Feb. 23, 11:15 a.m.-12:15 p.m. in Hill Hall’s Moeser Auditorium.

We both have this love of folk music of different cultures — if you listen to our music separately, that’s the unifying thing — and we’re both mixed-race American people for whom part of our life’s work is discovering cultural clashes or cultural melding. I think because we have those things in common, it was surprisingly easy for us to collaborate on something and make it seem as if it’s from a singular voice because, in our minds, it is.

Both you and Giddens have drawn from many musical genres in your past work. Is anything you incorporated into “Omar” new to you from your research?

I’ve always wondered how music — which all has the same components, the same DNA — can sound so different from one genre to another. I’ve been asking that question of music since I was a child. I’ve always been fascinated by genre and what makes country music sound like country, or what makes rock sound like rock. To answer those questions, I would try to write in those genres myself. It’s not like speaking in a different language, but like speaking with an accent. If you can create that accent, you’re listening in a way that’s more careful than someone who cannot. That was my way to try to adopt accents that I wouldn’t normally have.
There’s a Senegalese influence in the music of “Omar”, and while I had heard Senegalese music, I’d never tried to write anything that sounded influenced by that. That was a first-time thing, but it was also a lot of fun. I wish I had more excuses to write in that genre.

What drew you to “Omar”?

Omar’s story is really all of our stories. Too often, enslaved people’s stories are told as “them” — in the third person. It’s time for us to think about enslaved people and descendants of enslaved people as being “us” — as being a crucial component to the American story. Opera, being a very formal and larger-than-life medium, serves to amplify and emphasize whatever the stories are about. Stories that speak to everybody are the stories that seem to work best in opera, in my experience, so the idea to choose a story that people would think of as not speaking to everybody and prove that, yes, it in fact does, was the draw for me.

Jamez McCorkle and singers of "Omar" on stage.

Jamez McCorkle and singers of “Omar.” (Photo courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA)

How did the work compare to your movie scores and other projects?

There are ways in which it’s exactly the same in terms of the moment of inspiration. You’re still looking at the blank page and thinking, “What will go here?” In film, music is meant to support the dialogue and the action that’s going on, and it’s often meant to feel incomplete when those are removed. You will see a character having an experience or emotion on the screen, and then the music will follow that. It could be as little as a half-second later to maybe five seconds later, which is a long time in film. It’s important to filmmakers that an audience take in what’s going on visually and have the music confirm or enhance a reaction they are already having.

Ideally, an opera should work as music all by itself, without any of the visuals. Therefore, instead of the music following an emotion that a non-singing person has, the instrumental music is going to create an environment. It’s going to be the production design of an opera, and then the singer is going to sing into this emotional world that’s already created by the music. So the music goes first and is followed by the singer. That seems like a small thing but applied over an entire experience, you get how different the approaches are.

They’re both really thrilling mediums. The possibility of collaboration with other artists who are geniuses in their writing, acting and singing abilities is the thing that lights me up. I hope to continue to be able to work in both mediums and many others that I haven’t had a chance to work in yet.

Why is it important to tell Omar ibn Said’s story now?

We will not understand who we are today if we don’t understand our past. All of our pasts, collectively, provide the experience of who we are today. In a time when some people are trying to illegalize telling our stories and actually make it a crime, it’s more important than ever to tell all of our stories and understand that this is who we are.

I think anyone can relate to Omar’s story, especially in the way that we’ve told it. Omar was a learned person, a revered part of his community, who was kidnapped and enslaved, and yet through that horrific experience, through his own talents, manages to transcend his physical circumstances and be a person we can learn from today.

Giddens has deep roots in North Carolina, but you’re not from here. In working on “Omar,” what did you learn about the state?

Only everything. Like Rhiannon, I had not heard of his story until the opera. Part of my life’s work is to educate myself. I have had the advantage of being able, through creating art, to have my education. I think I will not have learned the half of it by the end of my lifetime. In that way, working on “Omar” the opera was just one step in my own educational journey, and I hope when other people see that work, I can contribute to their journeys.

I first had to read Omar’s autobiography and understand who he was, and I became aware of the fact that up to 20% of the enslaved people during the slave trade were Muslim, which I had no idea of.

You can read a story, and you can even bring it to life on stage, and it can feel real. But when the work premiered in Charleston, in a place where it all happened, made it real in a way that I can’t explain. It’s like this was a very American version of visiting an ancient ruin in Europe, something that you’ve heard about in European history, and realizing this is the place where it happened. Well, Charleston was the place where it happened. And Fayetteville is the place where it happened. And to know that I’m suddenly in these places and thinking that Omar might have been standing right here is profound in a way that’s hard to explain.

What do you hope audiences will learn or take away from watching Omar?

I hope that audiences are struck by his perseverance.

The first act is very hard to watch. It does not shy away from the horror of enslavement. It does not go as far as many television shows have and are able to, but it’s emotionally difficult and there’s no getting around that. It was important for us to go through that experience rather than around it.

The second act is much more transcendent. Omar’s story is that, despite the physical circumstances, his own abilities — his literacy, his wisdom and his faith — allowed his story to be something that we can learn about today and feel uplifted and hopeful from.

I hope that audiences are struck with that same sense — “If this person can survive these challenges, what is it that I’m capable of in my own life, starting from a place that is so much more blessed than what he had to deal with?”

That’s the thing I hope that people take away from it, but also how much his story is our story. It’s a human experience that belongs as part of our American canon as much as any other story that we could tell.