If a contemporary opera can be considered hot, then Omar, with music by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels, along with a libretto by Giddens, is sizzling. It’s the story of Omar ibn Said, a 37-year-old Muslim scholar living in West Africa who was captured in 1807 and forced aboard a ship bound for Charleston, South Carolina. Inspired by Said’s astonishing 1831 autobiography (the only known surviving American slave narrative written in Arabic), the opera had its world premiere at Spoleto Festival USA in May and has its West Coast debut at Los Angeles Opera Oct. 22 – Nov. 13. (The opera will also travel to Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.)
Again tackling the titular role is tenor Jamez McCorkle, who also makes his LA Opera debut in a performance that The New York Times’ Joshua Barone described as having “delicate lyricism in prayer and steely power in adversity.” A New Orleans native, the 32-year-old McCorkle originally trained as a pianist before turning to voice and eventually graduating from the Curtis Institute of Music; his rise has been swift.
Having participated in a handful of prestigious summer programs, including the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, I Sing Beijing, and Houston Grand Opera’s Young Artists’ Vocal Academy, McCorkle has also won several awards and competitions, among them the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, Gulf Coast Region. Indeed, after making his Met debut in 2019 as Peter the Honeyman in Porgy and Bess, the tenor had a banner 2021–2022 season: He made his house and role debut at the Bayerische Staatsoper as the Duke of Cornwall in Aribert Reimann’s 1978 Lear and assayed the role of Leonard Woolf in Kevin Puts’s new opera, The Hours, which was performed in Philadelphia last May in an acclaimed concert version.
Covering the musical waterfront, McCorkle has also performed Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and has sung Lensky in Eugene Onegin with Michigan Opera Theatre (now Detroit Opera) and at the Spoleto Festival, where he also performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in 2017. I had the pleasure of chatting with McCorkle on a range of topics, including the notion that he’s a magnet for new music, how he keeps vocally fit, and of course, what it’s like doing a deep dive into the role of Omar ibn Said.
What are your thoughts on making your LA Opera debut in Omar, and how did your casting come about?
It is incredible. I had no idea this opera Omar was going to become so big. I originally signed a contract with Spoleto, where I made my operatic debut in 2017 in Eugene Onegin. Then all of a sudden, I began getting these emails from Spoleto. It’s been a wild ride, and we’re just getting started. My manager and I are over the moon. We see the future as endless for us.
It’s no secret that you’ve been fiendishly busy lately. In addition to Omar, you recently made your debut singing Telemaco in a new production of Claudio Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria with Theater Basel. How is it different preparing, say, for a Monteverdi opera than preparing for a world-premiere contemporary work?
It’s pretty, pretty different. That contract with Basel was my first Baroque opera. I had so much fun learning that opera because you can do so much with it that you can’t really do with traditional operas, where people have set ideas of how things should sound and everyone is saying, “This is how it should be.” There’s much more creativity and experimentation in the Baroque world. That appealed to me. I love the freedom in Baroque music, where everyone’s trying to experiment and trying to make older music more accessible.
And now, Omar. Had you heard of Omar ibn Said, what kind of research did you do, and what was your process in creating the character?
I hadn’t heard of him, no. I looked up all the information that I could, and thankfully, Spoleto was so forward-thinking. They brought in several scholars who dedicated their entire lives to Omar’s history. They gave these scholars a platform on social media, [where there were] hours upon hours of talks and lectures between scholars. If you don’t know anything about this history, they’re now available for anyone to access on the Spoleto YouTube channel.
My personal preparations were above and beyond. I went as far as giving two separate performances of me singing every single line of the whole opera, including every chorus line, to invited guests, where, in between every scene, I broke down what’s happening in the scene. I gave a history lesson before I started — about the slave trade, where he came from, his background as a scholar, how he studied from the age of 12 for 25 years.
This was nothing I’d ever done before, [and] it prepared me on a whole other level that I think I’ll take to every opera from now on. I went with such confidence and was feeling like I know who this person was emotionally inside of myself.
Omar’s score features a blend of bluegrass, hymns, spirituals, and more, as well as nods to traditions from Africa and Islam. What was it like working with Michael Abels and Rhiannon Giddens? Had you been familiar with their music, and what kinds of notes did they give you?
I did hear of Michael from [the Jordan Peele films] Get Out and Us because he’s popular in that way. But I didn’t know any of Rhiannon’s music before this. I found out that she’s a juggernaut in the folk-music field; she’s a keeper of all this knowledge. It was great getting to know her and getting her thoughts. She came to a few rehearsals to give us insight into things happening culturally at the time and how the music translates into what was happening. She was such a great help in bridging the gap — culturally and musically — at that time.
In the opera, there’s a scene with traditional dance, and she’s a keeper of that knowledge, too. [As for] notes, in certain sections they both helped to give you ideas of more colors that you can create in your singing. For example, there’s a section where I’m talking to [the slaveowner] Johnson and I’m saying all these things about Allah.
I wasn’t being as delicate as I probably should have been and was singing more operatically, more full-out, and Rhiannon said something that sparked a different color in me — more velvet, more sensitive, little things here and there that can make a big difference in your sound.
Had you worked with conductor Kazem Abdullah before [Abdullah leads the LA Opera performances], and what kinds of adjustments do you make from production to production?
Absolutely not. I got a chance to meet him at the [Spoleto] premiere, and we had a few exchanges. He’s a wonderful conductor who is always trying to find something new in the character. Personally, myself, I get this critique saying that I’m unpredictable onstage sometimes. I think it’s a great asset to have [because] I’m always searching for something new, vocally, theatrically, so it’s never stagnant or stale.
In terms of the production itself, there aren’t many major detail changes that have happened. We have the stage in L.A., which is four or five times the size of the stage from Spoleto, so everything has been modified to become bigger. Overall, the concept is the same, which makes it easy on me to have creative flexibility. I can focus more on what I’m doing.
What attracts you to new music?
I think it’s more attracted to me. I tend to think it’s because of my piano background and my not needing very much help to learn new music. I learn all the music myself, so when people see that, they want to throw more new music at me. But I’m not complaining.
How do you think works like Omar, Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, and Anthony Davis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning opera The Central Park Five are changing the opera scene?
It’s telling the stories that aren’t being told that are happening today. It’s nice we have an outlet for our voices to be heard and for what we go through on a daily basis. It’s nice to see ourselves onstage through these characters, instead of trying to envision ourselves through other characters that don’t necessarily have the problems we go through.
Do you feel that race has been an issue in your career?
Let’s just say I’ve been very, very fortunate. I’m 32, and I’ve had guardian angels by my side the entire time. They’re looking out for my well-being, that I was on the right path. They’ve made it clear that I have a gift that should be nurtured and cared for and that I should take care of it to make sure I can give it to other people.
[As for] racism, I haven’t come across anything in my career, or if I have, it’s been kept a secret from me. There have been some times, whether for certain auditions, certain moments in my career where things have happened, where I’ve been pushed away or kept in the dark from the realities of those situations. But again, I have people around me that protect me.
Singing a title character is very demanding, so what’s your vocal regimen like?
Honey, if I told you the lengths, the drama that happens before a performance, your jaw would hit the floor. Things I look out for one, two, or three days before a performance? I say no mouth-breathing, no coughing, no clearing my throat, no sweating. When I was at Spoleto, it gets very hot in Charleston, and I would always walk out with a sun umbrella so I would sweat as little as possible.
I have no napping — sleeping, yes — and no direct sunlight for three days leading to the performance. In performance or rehearsal, I’m on a ketogenic diet so everything is not as jumpy for me emotionally. Everything is more leveled, my mind is more clear. And the amounts of water would be unfathomable to a normal person. I will drink close to two gallons a day. It’s spread out; it’s ritualistic, but it’s not OCD.
Talk about commitment! Knowing how you care for your voice, what advice would you give aspiring opera singers?
You can never be too hydrated. Ever! Seriously, the best advice is finding what works best for your vocal consistency, finding what works and doesn’t work for you. A lot of singers think they can just go to sleep and wake up without planning and still sound consistent in their voice.
Everything has to be planned in order to be consistent, especially with my type of voice. I never had consistency until I planned how to navigate certain things that were not healthy for my voice. You have to live your life by these rules. It becomes even unconscious. Things I do in my life now — I’ve done them so long, I don’t think it’s weird … until people point them out to me.