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Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels Honored with Pulitzer Prize for Music

Polymath artist Rhiannon Giddens, speaking from her home in Ireland on Monday after receiving the Pulitzer Prize in music, said, “I mean, look: I’m bowled over right now.”

During a phone conversation, she was conversing with composer Michael Abels, who was listening in from the United States. They collaborated on “Omar,” an opera about a Muslim scholar named Omar Ibn Said who was kidnapped in Africa in the early 1800s and sold into slavery in Charleston, South Carolina (and ultimately won a Pulitzer Prize for it). In May of last year, the piece had its debut at the Spoleto Festival USA.

The libretto was written by Giddens based on Said’s memoirs, while the composer, Abels, worked from self-accompanied recordings. As I wrote in my review of the premiere, this eclectic melting pot of musical styles and traditions exemplified “an unforced ideal of American sound: expansive and ever-changing.”

Abels has composed music for both live performances and cinematic scores, such as the one for “Get Out.” Although she is best known as a folk singer, Giddens also has operatic training and experience, having hosted the podcast “Aria Code” and performed works by John Adams. Giddens, who didn’t major in composition, may now add a Pulitzer Prize to his collection of Grammys and MacArthur “genius” grants.

That “nobody has the lock on being a composer,” she said, was a statement she meant literally. We need to end the division over who can and cannot be considered a composer. Many individuals have the potential to write the next “Omar.”

Throughout the discussion, Giddens and Abels’ phones rang with compliments and calls about their opera, and they discussed the future of the work and their careers. The following are condensed versions of the discussion.

RIANNON GIDDENS It’s fantastic, since Michael and I are using what we know to create this. It was a heartfelt declaration of patriotism. Though it has many flaws, I like the way its citizens can work together to create something really remarkable. The genres and styles that make up American music span a wide range.

ABELS, MICHAEL People are beginning to see the reality of that remark and the significance of our tales as part of our whole creative history, demonstrating the value of conveying all of our experiences via our beautiful art. I just returned from two performances at Boston Lyric Opera, where it was met with sold-out audiences. People who have never been to the opera before in each location have been affected and seen by the performers, and they have felt welcome in a creative place where they may not have felt welcome before.

GIDDENS A lot of the writing was done on the spot. A writer’s answer to this question when crafting an ending might be, “I don’t know, I just need to do it this way.” I quickly saw that a typical narrative would not work since the autobiography is so short on specifics.

There have been American operas on very American issues, but for African Americans, there was “Porgy and Bess.” The opera is magnificent, but we’re getting to the part when we share our own tales. And we need to consider the tale we’re delivering and the impression we want to leave with our viewers. To heal, the last act had to centre on him and his faith.

ABELS The fact that the first half was a story and the second wasn’t even seemed to me as odd at the time. Everything settled down into its proper place. As a performer, [Rhiannon] constantly designs shows for her fans. Her background as a performer likely informs her awareness of the need of considering the audience while wrapping up this project.

GIDDENS This demonstrates that there is more than one correct approach to a problem. In all my years of schooling, I have never taken a single composition course. However, I have experienced composition in a unique manner.

Jonathan James
Jonathan James
I serve as a Senior Executive Journalist of The National Era
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