“Omar,” an opera informed by unique historical documents in the Wilson Special Collections Library, has won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize in Music.
The opera was created by Southern Futures at Carolina Performing Arts Artist-in-Residence Rhiannon Giddens and acclaimed composer Michael Abels. The opera is based on the life of Omar ibn Said, a West African scholar who was kidnapped and enslaved in the Carolinas.
To write “Omar,” Giddens pulled from a wealth of sources, including Arabic texts written by Said that are housed in the Wilson Special Collections Library.
“It’s really miraculous that we have his materials in North Carolina, not that far from where he spent most of the rest of his life,” said Giddens. “Without his words, we have nothing.”
“Engaging with historical materials helps us to understand our history through the lens of those who lived it,” said Vice Provost for University Libraries and University Librarian María R. Estorino. “The opera ‘Omar’ takes that history to audiences in an innovative and intimate way. We are thrilled that it has received this well-deserved recognition and delighted for our colleagues at Carolina Performing Arts, who co-commissioned and co-produced the work.”
To mark the opera’s presentation at Carolina, archivists offered students and community members a rare opportunity to view the materials in person. Because the materials are extremely fragile, researchers generally consult them online.
“Event participants brought their unique perspectives to discussions about what the materials say — and do not say — about Said’s experience,” said Curator of the Southern Historical Collection Chaitra Powell. “The conversations showed the universal appeal of Said’s story.”