Wells Fargo, Spoleto Festival USA share the story of ‘Omar’
The opera, which made its world premiere on May 27, is based on the autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, an enslaved African brought to Charleston, South Carolina, in 1807.
Early in the 19th century, Omar Ibn Said was captured and enslaved near his home in present-day Senegal. A well-educated man who studied the Qur’an, Said was taken to the United States, sold, and spent his final 56 years on plantations in North Carolina and South Carolina, during which he wrote his autobiography — the only known surviving slave narrative inscribed in Arabic. His life story is being chronicled in a new opera, “Omar,” which made its world premiere at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 27.
Spoleto Festival USA, founded in 1977, has long served as a catalyst for cultural change in Charleston, aiding the city in becoming a popular tourist destination. And alongside it, for nearly five decades, has been Wells Fargo.
“We’ve been involved since the beginning,” said Phil Smith, head of Specialized Industries for Wells Fargo Commercial Banking and president of Spoleto Festival USA’s board of directors. “Typically, the company makes an annual contribution to the festival and sometimes takes on special projects that have community impact. When we heard about the authentic story of Omar, we knew this was a very special opportunity.”
“It was about four years ago that the (former) general director (Nigel Redden) talked about the story of Omar Ibn Said,” Smith said. “He talked about the amazing background of the creators Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels … they were going to come together and write an original opera around this important story. The fact that this story was sitting in the Library of Congress, it really needed to get told.”
When Smith asked Wells Fargo leadership to partner with Spoleto in bringing the opera to life, it was an immediate yes.
Beyond a sponsorship
With such a powerful and rare story at its fingertips, Wells Fargo and Spoleto wanted to do more.
According to a report by the College of Charleston’s Lowcountry Digital History Initiative (LDHI), more than 40% of all enslaved Africans who came to North America via the trans-Atlantic slave trade arrived through Charleston Harbor.
“So, to actually have this piece world premiered in Charleston less than a mile away from where Omar was sold into slavery is monumental,” said Mena Mark Hanna, general director of Spoleto Festival USA.
While teachers describe the history of the city in Charleston County School District (CCSD) classrooms, experiencing it through a discipline like opera is rare. That’s why, in partnership with Wells Fargo, the district distributed to students 5,000 workbooks about the opera and the life of Omar Ibn Said.
“For basically the month of May, the students have been studying Omar,” said Jennifer Savage, a CCSD literacy/instructional coach. From watching videos to a trip to the Library of Congress, the students researched, debated, and did presentations for other students about Omar’s story.
And on May 24, to close out their studies on Omar, eighth grade students from across the county were invited to attend the dress rehearsal — three nights before its world premiere — of “Omar.”
“The music was phenomenal,” said Savage. “Just the suspense, the emotion, the acting, the singing, all of it. The students, their takeaways were different than they expected. One of their major comments was like the spiritual effect. They really noticed a lot that Omar's mother was so present in the story. And that was something they hadn't taken away from the research they’d done.”
Following the performance, the students had a chance to talk with Jonathan Green, a renowned artist from Charleston, who created the Omar workbook from which they studied.
“That was really, really powerful for them to hear from the illustrator, what his intentions were, what his ideas were in creating Omar,” Savage said, “and how he gave Omar a story from what he learned, and (by) using his imagination.”
Sponsoring the opera, workbooks, and Spoleto Festival USA wasn’t just the right thing to do for Wells Fargo, but it also aligned with the company’s continued commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“This truly married the mission of what we wanted to do, who we wanted to be, and quite frankly, who we wanted to work with,” said Danielle Squires, head of Diverse Segments for Corporate and Investment Banking. “It really put us into the community, and it shows our support of the arts, it shows our support of diverse communities, it shows our support of getting new perspectives and viewpoints into the world.”
“Omar” will make its west coast debut at the Los Angeles Opera, beginning Oct. 22.
“I'm so deeply grateful for Wells Fargo’s sponsorship of this opera,” Hanna said. “Opera is an incredible vehicle for storytelling, and this opera in particular is about educating ourselves in this nation's true history, and Wells Fargo is a part of that.”