‘Omar’ authors win 2023 Pulitzer Prize in music

Photo by Kent Corley from the Carolina Performing Arts performance of “Omar.”

“Omar,” an opera from Southern Futures at Carolina Performing Arts Artist-in-Residence Rhiannon Giddens and acclaimed composer Michael Abels, has won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize in music. This marks the first time a work co-commissioned and co-produced by CPA has won this distinguished national honor.

Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels

Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels

On Feb. 25 and 26, sold-out audiences watched the North Carolina premiere of “Omar” as part of CPA’s 2022-23 season. The work draws inspiration from the life of Omar ibn Said, a West African scholar who spent over half a century enslaved to a prominent North Carolina family. Upon his death, Said left behind a collection of Arabic-language documents, including an 1831 autobiography that informs much of the opera’s content. Some of these materials reside in Wilson Library on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.

“We’re thrilled that our support and investment in this opera, in collaboration with Spoleto Festival USA and the many opera houses now staging it, helped bring this Pulitzer-winning work to life,” said Alison Friedman, the James and Susan Moeser executive and artistic director at CPA. “‘Omar’ is the result of countless hours of cross-disciplinary research, and the state of North Carolina should be proud of UNC’s role in nurturing such an innovative production.”

“Omar” draws inspiration from the life of West African scholar Omar ibn Said (played by Jamez McCorkle), who spent over half a century enslaved to a prominent North Carolina family. (Photo by Spoleto Festival U.S.A.)

Ahead of the February performances, CPA partnered with organizations across the community to foster discussions about the social, political, economic and historical context of the opera. The partner organizations included UNC Press, MDC and the UNC African Studies Center, among others. Hundreds of community members attended these events and participated in these ongoing conversations, including a group of area high schoolers.

“With the help of local teachers, we brought in 130 students to attend a dress rehearsal hosted by Rhiannon Giddens herself,” said Amanda Graham, associate director of engagement at CPA. “The students saw how the music that began on Giddens’ banjo transformed into the foundation for an entire opera. It felt incredible to share that process with the community.”

In the wake of the Pulitzer announcement, Giddens hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. On May 9, she announced the forthcoming release of her new solo album, “You’re the One.” She is also embarking on the second year of her three-year residency with Southern Futures at CPA. In this role, she’ll continue to pull from the past to tell hidden stories about the South.

“CPA is committed to the research, commissioning and production of new work that helps to tell untold stories of our regional history and spur audiences to ask and observe how art can build bridges,” said Friedman. “To see a work supported by Southern Futures win a Pulitzer Prize shows that we’re on the right path. Work produced on UNC’s campus with local roots is making a global impact.”

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