Commentary: Redemption, writ large, in L.A. Opera’s divine ‘Omar’
This week sees the new opera, “Omar,” make its bow in Los Angeles. If “Omar,” as an opera, is a musical and theatrical phenomenon, then this is a phenomenon in the making. Its star, the British tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, has performed in operas and orchestras around the world and even at home; it is the first full-length work in the opera genre on Broadway in the modern era. He sings the opera’s lead, Omar, in a voice that is, as we’ve heard, both angelic and baritone, though his voice is never at the level of tenor Michael Tilson Thomas. The opera is based on a true story told in an article by Anthony Shaffer, “Omar: A Portrait of a Man,” which was first published in the New York Times in 1979.
The opera, which was first staged in London in 1993, is a “noir” opera. Its setting is the city of Los Angeles, where an artist and his wife, a television writer, are in the midst of an affair. Their life changes when a mysterious young man, played by Costanzo, appears in their lives. The opera’s second-act plot revolves around the “miraculous” way that this young man, whose name, of course, is Omar, seems to come into their lives. Through his actions and words, he heals the pain Omar and his wife experience from a terrible break-up.
“Omar” is a remarkable work; despite the fact that it was first performed 15 years ago, Costanzo’s singing, particularly in the closing scene, still conveys tremendous emotion and pathos. And it is this opera’s power that we are all talking about. The opera is about redemption and the pain of loss and the joy of forgiveness, even of forgiveness for a man who is, in another context, a monster.
So what did Costanzo do to become one of the world’s leading performers of the contemporary opera in a genre that has long been male-dominated? The answer is twofold: he has played leading roles in opera companies around the world and now in America. But where he really learned his craft was in the United Kingdom.
In fact, Costanzo’s most acclaimed appearance is in a