Scene from Omar Opera written by Rhiannon Giddens
CPA Series


February 25 & 26
7 PM

Tickets from $10–$69. See details below.

What does it mean to tell a story? How do we reckon with the gaps in our history? 

These questions animate the North Carolina premiere of Omar, an opera from Southern Futures at CPA Artist-in Residence Rhiannon Giddens and acclaimed composer Michael Abels. This sweeping new work draws inspiration from the 1831 autobiography of Omar ibn Said, beginning long before the West African scholar was forced to board a ship bound for Charleston, South Carolina—the site of his initial enslavement. Pulling from a wealth of sources—including historical texts found in Carolina’s Louis Round Wilson Library—Omar tells a profound story of strength, resistance, and religious conviction in the face of harrowing circumstances. And, according to Giddens, it goes beyond a simple retelling to tackle issues that will resonate with a wide range of contemporary audiences. 

“My work as a whole is about excavating and shining a light on pieces of history that not only need to be seen and heard, but that can also add to the conversation about what’s going on now,” Giddens said. “This is a story that hasn’t been represented in the operatic world — or in any world.” 

Rhiannon Giddens

Though Said’s memoir ends some 30 years before his eventual death in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Omar transcends bare biographical facts to fully realize the record of his life and his steadfast Muslim faith. The rich, bubbling score combines West African traditions and traditional opera instrumentation to illuminate the lives of Omar ibn Said and those who came into his orbit. 

Sung in English with some Arabic; English supertitles.

“Moving, joyous and in its final moments intensely spiritual, it should not have trouble winning over audiences…”

The New York Times


Tickets available for $39–$69. $10 UNC-Chapel Hill student tickets available with valid UNC One Card. Additional discounts available. Visit our FAQ page for details.

event details

  • Program: We’re excited to offer a robust digital program book for this event. To access this resource, click here. This program can also be accessed via QR codes on event signage.
  • Runtime: 2 hours, 47 minutes (with intermission)
  • Intermission: 20 minutes
  • Additional information: Visit our FAQ page


Composer / Librettist: Rhiannon Giddens

Composer: Michael Abels

Conductor: John Kennedy

Director: Kaneza Schaal

Orchestra provided in partnership with the North Carolina Opera.

Omar is co-commissioned and co-produced by Spoleto Festival USA and Carolina Performing Arts at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Carolina Performing Arts’ participation in this project is made possible through the support of the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust.

Additional co-commissioners include LA Opera, Boston Lyric Opera, San Francisco Opera, and Lyric Opera of Chicago. From A Muslim American Slave: The Life of Omar Ibn Said translated with an introduction by Ala Alryyes. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. © 2011 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved. 


Photo of Rhiannon Giddens

The acclaimed musician Rhiannon Giddens uses her art to excavate the past and reveal bold truths about our present. A MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, Giddens co-founded the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, and she has been nominated for six additional Grammys for her work as a soloist and collaborator. She was most recently nominated for her collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, There Is No Other (2019). Giddens’s forthcoming album, They’re Calling Me Home, is a 12-track album, recorded with Turrisi in Ireland during the recent lockdown; it speaks of the longing for the comfort of home as well as the metaphorical “call home” of death, which has been a tragic reality for so many during the COVID-19 crisis. 


Giddens’s lifelong mission is to lift up people whose contributions to American musical history have previously been erased, and to work toward a more accurate understanding of the country’s musical origins. Pitchfork has said of her work, “few artists are so fearless and so ravenous in their exploration,” and Smithsonian Magazine calls her “an electrifying artist who brings alive the memories of forgotten predecessors, white and black.”

Among her many diverse career highlights, Giddens has performed for the Obamas at the White House, served as a Carnegie Hall Perspectives curator, and received an inaugural Legacy of Americana Award from Nashville’s National Museum of African American History in partnership with the Americana Music Association. Her critical acclaim includes in-depth profiles by CBS Sunday Morning, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and NPR’s Fresh Air, among many others. 

Giddens is featured in Ken Burns’s Country Music series, which aired on PBS in 2019, where she speaks about the African American origins of country music. She is also a member of the band Our Native Daughters with three other black female banjo players, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell, and Amythyst Kiah, and co-produced their debut album Songs of Our Native Daughters (2019), which tells stories of historic black womanhood and survival. 

Named Artistic Director of Silkroad in 2020, Giddens is developing a number of new programs for the organization, including one inspired by the history of the American transcontinental railroad and the cultures and music of its builders. She recently wrote the music for an original ballet, Lucy Negro Redux, for Nashville Ballet (premiered in 2019), and the libretto and music for an original opera, Omar, based on the autobiography of the enslaved man Omar ibn Said for the Spoleto USA Festival (premiered in 2022) and Carolina Performing Arts (spring 2023).

As an actor, Giddens had a featured role on the television series Nashville.


Two-time Emmy-nominated composer Michael Abels is known for his genre-defying scores for the Jordan Peele films Get Out and Us, for which Abels won a World Soundtrack Award, the Jerry Goldsmith Award, a Critics Choice nomination, and multiple critics awards. The hip-hop influenced score for Us was shortlisted for the Oscar, and was named “Score of the Decade” by The Wrap. Other recent projects include the films Bad EducationNightbooksFake Famous, and the docu-series Allen v. Farrow. Current releases include BeautyBreaking, and Nope, his third collaboration with Jordan Peele, now nominated for a Saturn Award. Upcoming projects include ChevalierThe Burial, and Landscape With Invisible Hand.


Abels’ creative output also includes many concert works, including At War With Ourselves for the Kronos Quartet, Isolation Variation for Hilary Hahn, and the opera Omar, co-composed with Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Rhiannon Giddens. Omar is currently onstage at LA Opera through November 13. His scores have been performed by the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and many others. Some of these pieces are available on the Cedille label, including Delights & Dances and Winged Creatures. Current commissions include Emerge for the National Symphony, and a guitar concerto Borders for Grammy-nominated artist Mak Grgic.

Abels is co-founder of thee Composers Diversity Collective, an advocacy group to increase visibility of composers of color in film, gaming, and streaming media.


Kaneza Schaal is a New York City based artist working in theater, opera, and film. Schaal was named a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow, and received a 2021 Herb Alpert Award in Theatre, Sundance Institute Interdisciplinary Program Grant, 2019 United States Artists Fellowship, SOROS Art Migration and Public Space Fellowship, Joyce Award, LMCC Alumni Award, 2018 Ford Foundation Art For Justice Bearing Witness Award, 2017 MAP Fund Award, 2016 Creative Capital Award, and was an Aetna New Voices Fellow at Hartford Stage. 


Her project GO FORTH, premiered at Performance Space 122 and then showed at the Genocide Memorial Amphitheater in Kigali, Rwanda; Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans; Cairo International Contemporary Theater Festival in Egypt; and at her alma mater Wesleyan University, CT. Her work JACK & showed in BAM’s 2018 Next Wave Festival, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and with its co-commissioners Walker Arts Center, REDCAT, On The Boards, Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center, and Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. Schaal’s piece CARTOGRAPHY premiered at The Kennedy Center and toured to The New Victory Theater, Abu Dhabi Arts Center and Playhouse Square, OH. Her dance work, MAZE, created with FLEXN NYC, premiered at The Shed. She directed Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson’s BLUE at Michigan Opera Theater, and before that, Triptych composed by Bryce Dessner with libretto by Korde Arrington Tuttle, which premiered at LA Philharmonic, The Power Center in Ann Arbor, MI, BAM Opera House and Holland Festival. Schaal recently directed the world premiere of OMAR written by Rhiannon Giddens and co-composed by Giddens and Michael Abels at the Spoleto Festival USA, and its continuation at Los Angeles Opera. Her newest original work, KLII, is a National Performance Network (NPN) Creation & Development Fund Project co-commissioned by Walker Art Center in partnership with Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, and REDCAT, and was co-commissioned as part of the Eureka Commissions program by the Onassis Foundation. Schaal will develop and direct a number of upcoming works including SPLIT TOOTH with Tanya Tagaq (Luminato Festival, Canada), HUSH ARBOR with Imani Uzuri (The Momentary, AZ) and a new work with musician Bryce Dessner.

Schaal’s work has also been supported by New England Foundation for The Arts, Baryshnikov Arts Center, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Nathan Cummings Foundation, Foundation for Contemporary Arts, FACE Foundation Contemporary Theater grant, Theater Communications Group, and a Princess Grace George C. Wolfe Award. Her work with The Wooster Group, Elevator Repair Service, Richard Maxwell/New York City Players, Claude Wampler, Jim Findlay, and Dean Moss has brought her to venues including Centre Pompidou, Royal Lyceum Theater Edinburgh, The Whitney Museum, and MoMA.

Schaal is an Arts-in-Education advocate. Her work at the International Children’s Book Library in Munich, Germany with young asylum seekers to address migration and storytelling led to the creation of CARTOGRAPHY. Additionally, she created arts exchange platforms at three prisons in upstate New York, and has begun work on a new program for New York State’s maximum security facility for girls. Schaal’s education work has spanned from universities to community centers to public high schools; and from workshops for professional artists, to professional development training for teachers, to intergenerational collaborations between elders and teens, to in-schools work with immigrant communities. Schaal taught an Atelier course at Princeton University with Elevator Repair Service and has lectured at Yale University, CT, Wesleyan University, CT, New York University, University of The Arts, PA and Xavier, LA. In Spring 2020 she taught a course at Harvard University on theater and social practice, and she was the Denzel Washington Endowed Chair in Theatre at Fordham University in Fall 2021.


CPA and MDC invite you to:
The State of the South, Omar ibn Said:
A Conversation Between Dr. Youssef Carter and Dr. William Spriggs

When: Tuesday, Feb. 21, 5–6:30 PM
Where: CURRENT Studio

Omar ibn Said’s story illuminates the historical and geographical relationships between Black Muslim religious empowerment, forced and chosen migration, and labor. As we think of the future of the South—as well as its present—understanding this history is essential to imagining economic systems rooted in equity.

Join us for a dialogue between Dr. Youssef Carter, an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and the Kenan Rifai Fellow in Islamic Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, and Dr. William Spriggs, the former Chair of the Department of Economics at Howard University and Chief Economist to the AFL-CIO. This dialogue will be moderated by MDC Senior Program Director Kerri Forrest. Together, we will explore and bear witness to the historical conditions of slavery faced by Ibn Said, while envisioning how we might realize systems that value humanity.

Registration is free! Click here to register.

CPA and the UNC Department of Music invite you to:
Performing & Imagining the American South “Open Classroom” on Omar
Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels in conversation with Dr. Naomi André

When: Thursday, Feb. 23, 11:15 AM–12:15 PM
Where: Moeser Auditorium in Hill Hall

The university community is welcome to join the students in Performing and Imagining the American South (IDST 121) for a conversation between Rhiannon Giddens, Michael Abels, and Dr. Naomi André on Omar, music, and the American South.

Dr. Naomi André is the David G. Frey Distinguished Professor of Music at UNC-Chapel Hill.

No registration required.

CPA, UNC Press, and the UNC African Studies Center invite you to:
“What is the ’Autobiogaphy’ of Omar Ibn Said?” with Dr. Carl W. Ernst and Dr. Mbaye Lo

When: Thursday, Feb. 23, 5:30–7 PM
Where: FedEx Global Education Center, Nelson Mandela Auditorium

Omar Ibn Said (1770-1863), a West African Muslim scholar, was sold into slavery in America, where he spent over half a century enslaved to a prominent North Carolina family. He left behind a small collection of documents in Arabic that remain poorly understood. This presentation is based on Dr. Ernst and Dr. Lo’s book, I Cannot Write My Life: Islam, Arabic, and Slavery in Omar ibn Said’s America, forthcoming from UNC Press in August 2023. Why, at the beginning of his 1831 “Autobiography,” did Ibn Said announce “I cannot write my life”? What is the significance of his quotations from Islamic theological and mystical texts, which have escaped notice until now? Ernst and Lo will address these questions and more. Join us to learn more about their major reassessment of this important witness to the presence of Islam and Arabic at the beginning of America’s history.

Moderated by Mark Simpson-Vos, the Editorial Director for UNC Press.

Mbaye Lo is an Associate Professor of the Practice of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies & International Comparative Studies at Duke University.

Carl W. Ernst is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Registration is free! Click here to register.

Up Close and Personal with Omar ibn Said Materials
Instruction Sessions in Wilson Special Collections Library

Register for Session 1: Monday, Feb. 27, 9–10 AM 
Register for Session 2: Wednesday, Mar. 1, 3–4 PM 
Register for Session 3: Thursday, Mar. 2, 12–1 PM

Where: Wilson Library, Room 901  

For folks who were able to see the Omar opera or are simply curious about its inspiration, we are offering three opportunities for our Carolina campus community to get up close and personal with documents and other materials related to Omar ibn Said. Guests who sign up online will have a chance to see the original 19th century artifacts featuring or written by Omar himself. In addition, guests will have the opportunity to speak with UNC reference librarians and learn even more ways to engage with Omar’s story and special collections at UNC Libraries.


“Only a musician like Giddens could have created ‘Omar,’ for which she wrote the libretto and composed in recorded drafts — she sang and accompanied herself — that were then orchestrated by Abels, with an ear for subtle connections and propulsive drama. Their score…is a melting pot inspired by bluegrass, hymns, spirituals and more, with nods to traditions from Africa and Islam. It’s an unforced ideal of American sound: expansive and ever-changing.”

The New York Times


Student Ticket Angel Fund Sponsors:

  • Paula Noell and Palmer Page

Lead Performance Sponsors:

  • The William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust
  • Carol and Rick McNeel
  • Randleigh Foundation Trust

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