Hub Quick Hits: Spoleto Festival USA commission awarded Pulitzer

Top honors for Omar

A Black man with close-cropped hair and a beard, wearing a flowing orange tunic, sings on the left of a darkened stage. A white man with short dark hair and white flowing clothes points at the Black man while singing. The stage set looks like a weathered wooden-slat fence with text from the opera in white superimposed via projection.

Jamez McCorkle on stage with Malcom MacKenzie. Spoleto Festival USA photo by William Struhs.

It was announced yesterday that Omar, the opera co-commissioned by and premiered at Spoleto Festival USA in 2022, is the 2023 Pulitzer Prize winner for music.

Omar was composed by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels and awarded “For distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the year.” It comes with a $15,000 prize.

The 1831 autobiography of Omar ibn Said, a West African scholar uprooted and sold into slavery in Charleston, is the inspiration for Omar.

Opening in Senegal, the opera’s narrative traces Said’s spiritual journey from his life in West Africa to his enslavement in the Carolinas. A Muslim African scholar, Said was 37 years old when he was captured in Futa Toro and brought to Charleston. His story is one of strength, resistance, and religious conviction, a story of truth and of faith.

Upon arrival in the United States, Said was sold to a Charlestonian, but escaped and fled to North Carolina, where he was recaptured, sent to jail, and then resold to James Owen, the brother of one of the state’s governors. Said penned his autobiography in Arabic in 1831. It is considered the only surviving autobiography of an enslaved person in the United States written in Arabic and therefore unedited. According to many scholars, as many as 30 percent of the enslaved Africans who arrived in the colonies, and subsequently the United States, were Muslim, a largely unexplored truth in modern American discussions of slavery.