Alumna stars in Rhiannon Giddens’ opera at Spoleto Festival

Posted on June 07, 2022

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UNCG alumna Cheryse McLeod Lewis in “Omar” at the Spoleto Festival

Stars truly rise at UNC Greensboro. But not just one by one. 

When the house lights dim around the world’s stages, Spartans light up in great numbers, and sometimes work together to push the boundaries of the performing arts.

Cheryse McLeod Lewis ’01 in “Omar”

An original opera by alumna Rhiannon Giddens, “Omar,” is currently headlining the 17-day Spoleto Festival, in Charleston, S.C. Another UNCG alumna, Cheryse McLeod Lewis ’01, plays a principal role, and current UNCG School of Music student Michael Adams sings in one of the two choirs.

The opera’s premiere comes a month before Giddens goes on a first tour as artistic director of Silkroad, an ensemble founded by Yo-Yo Ma. 

Giddens and Lewis have been lifelong friends through music activities in Greensboro, and both attended the UNCG vocal performance master’s program and sang with UNCG Opera Theatre. Adams is a rising junior in the program, and also appeared with Giddens in Greensboro Opera’s “Porgy and Bess.

UNCG alumnae Rhiannon Giddens and Cheryse McLeod Lewis ’01

“Omar,” directed by Kaneza Schaal, occupies one of the three opera spots at Spoleto, one of the nation’s most prestigious performing arts festivals since 1977, when it was created by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Gian Carlo Menotti. It has been cited as a force of cultural change within Charleston, and responsible for helping the city become an arts destination.

After the six-performance premiere concludes, “Omar” will move on to opera houses around the country where regional singers will join the production, beginning with the Los Angeles Opera and Boston Lyric Opera next season.

Omar ibn Said, courtesy UNC CH Southern Historical Collection

The festival first brought the difficult, moving, and regionally relevant history of Omar ibn Said to Giddens five years ago. The story begins in 1807 when Said, a 37-year-old Senagalese scholar of Islam, was captured and sent through the Middle Passage to Charleston, the route that brought 40 percent of all slaves to America at that time. Said was held for more than 50 years as a slave, but he continued writing, including an autobiography that informs the opera’s story. Omar Said Ibn’s life and writings were the topic of a lecture at UNCG in 2019 and also came up in a campus conversation with Giddens in 2018.

The music Giddens composed is a collaboration with Michael Abels, who scored the Oscar-winning film “Get Out.” It is the first original opera for Giddens, a Grammy winner and MacArthur “genius grant” recipient. The music combines traditional operatic music with that of the Muslim diaspora, American spirituals, bluegrass, and a musical theater sound.

Lewis plays Omar’s mother, who is a source of inspiration to him throughout his life.

“It’s just beautiful.” Lewis said about the work. “The way it melds Middle Eastern Muslim music with spirituals, with church gospel music, with cinematic-sounding music, and Gershwin-sounding music from musical theater. It’s got everything.”

In a short documentary about the production created by The Post and Courier, Giddens reflected on the content and process of the creation.

“It’s a connection to Black culture that I didn’t really anticipate writing,” she said. “I’m connecting to other Black singers in the production in a way where they’re telling me they feel seen, they feel like I’m telling their story… Being an opera composer was really daunting. But just my instinct said ‘Yes, just do this. And we’ll figure it out.’”

The opera’s journey to the stage took some time. It was originally slated for Spoleto in 2020, but the festival was canceled because of the pandemic, and returned in 2021 as a scaled-back operation. The producers of “Omar” waited until just the right moment to launch a full production as the festival geared back up in 2021 for a more normal season.

Cheryse McLeod Lewis in “Omar,” photograph by Karen Cox

The production, including Lewis’ performance, has received glowing reviews from major news sources such as The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and NPR, who calls it a “thoroughly American opera.”

Lewis was part of the original set of workshops for “Omar” in New York City beginning in 2019. She has appeared as a soloist on national stages, performs frequently with the Seattle Opera, runs her own vocal entertainment company, sings with her all-female Motown group; and does acting and voiceover work.

“It’s been amazing,” she said about the process of creating “Omar.”  “The culmination of so many years of living with this piece, and watching it develop over the course of three years, over the course of a global pandemic, and all of the questions that brought along with it. It’s really a stunning piece of work, and it’s going to be performed in so many other opera houses. It’s in the canon now.”

Student spotlight: Michael Adams ’24

“I’m very fortunate for the community that I’ve been able to be a part of in Spoleto, and to do an opera focusing on Black people, Black bodies and lives. I had met Rhiannon when I did ‘Porgy and Bess’ in January, and she’s a true artist – very ,very talented. When she came to talk to us about ‘Omar,’ she taught us square dancing, and the history of square dancing, and we watched these beautiful, archived recordings of Black people dancing in North Carolina. We also had a moment where, with the entire cast, we sat in a circle, and were able to ask her questions about the show, and she was happy to answer those questions. And Cheryse has been really supportive of us, telling us about being an artist and marketing ourselves. So, she’s been a mentor for me, and I appreciate that a lot.” -Michael Adams ’24, UNCG School of Music

Story by Susan Kirby-Smith, University Communications
Photography by William Struhs and Karen Cox, and courtesy of the Spoleto Festival, Cheryse McLeod Lewis, and Michael Adams


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