Understanding Opera: Part 2

The operas discussed here are not set in 18th century France or a mythological country. One is set in 21st century Cincinnati, Ohio; the other in 19th century South Carolina. Both deal with topics you may not expect from an opera: four high schoolers prepping for college admission essays; an enslaved Muslim man finding his way in pre-Civil War America. But what they tell us is that opera is only limited by what we decide it can express.

Fierce (2022)–the opera set in Cincinnati– was written by composer-pianist William Menefield with a libretto by author Sheila Williams. The four characters of the opera: Rumer, Nyomi, Morgan, and Vesta, were inspired by Williams’ conversations with real teenage artists living in the region. The score is not strictly “classical.” Menefield’s self-described “musical salad” features powerful orchestral lines but also Afro-Latin rhythms, gospel, and blues that shift between expressing the characters’ youth and desire for unfettered expression and their moments of uncertainty and conflict as they consider the next stage of their lives.

Megan Graves as Rumer, Alicia Russell Tagert as Morgan, Victoria Ellington as Nyomi, and Lauren McAllister as Vesta in Cincinnati Opera’s 2022 production of Fierce–Photo by Philip Groshong

One of my favorite moments is an aria from Vesta, as she sings about her love for otters. Did you think an opera could have an aria where a character sings about their love of otters? I didn’t; but Williams and Menefield did! “Otters are Wonderful” is quirky, heartfelt, and earnest. A reminder that opera isn’t only about the serious but the fun and goofy too.

However, Omar (2022) is anything but fun. Composed by Rhiannon Giddens (who also did the libretto) and Michael Abels, Omar is based on a real dude: Omar ibn Said, an Islamic scholar born and raised in Senegal, kidnapped during a military battle and sold into slavery in 1807. During his enslavement, he wrote fourteen documents in Arabic, one of which was an autobiography. This document is currently the only Arabic autobiography written by an enslaved person in the United States, challenging standard knowledge of enslaved peoples’ religious traditions, literary practices, and interior lives.

Omar debuted at the famous Spoleto Festival in 2022, in the same city where ibn Said was first enslaved, Charleston, South Carolina (he escaped and was resold to an enslaver in North Carolina). This opera would win the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2023.

What makes Omar interesting is not just its subject matter, but the people who created it: Giddens is a trained classical vocalist who shifted to a career as an old-time music/folk singer and songwriter. Abels is also classically trained, but best known for his film scores (see Get Out and Us). For them, opera was the ideal method to communicate the scope, drama, and power of ibn Said’s story. They didn’t allow assumptions of what opera could or couldn’t do deter them; they believed it could and made it so.

These are just two of many operas that communicate ideas, issues, and experiences of the recent past and present. As opera companies get more daring, we will see the true variety that exists within this art form more often and more frequently. A reminder that any creative practice is not what people tell you it is, but what its creators make of it.