Rhiannon Giddens ’00 Wins 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Music

Singer, multi-instrumentalist, and composer honored for the historical opera “Omar.”

May 12, 2023

Annie Zaleski

Rhiannon Giddens.
Photo credit: Ebru Yildiz

Multifaceted musician and 2000 Oberlin Conservatory alumna Rhiannon Giddens and composer Michael Abels won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Music for their opera Omar, an honor announced on May 8. The work, which premiered May 27, 2022, at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, is based on the autobiography of the West Africa-born Muslim scholar Omar Ibn Said, who was sold into slavery in 1807.

Giddens wrote the libretto for Omar, which is described on the Pulitzer website as “a musical work that respectfully represents African as well as African American traditions, expanding the language of the operatic form while conveying the humanity of those condemned to bondage.” 

The premiere performance was conducted by John Kennedy, a 1982 Oberlin Conservatory alum and the festival’s resident conductor and director of orchestral activities. 

Omar reflects Giddens’ rigorous approach to her work. “I’ve always been interested in history,” she said during an interview for the Winter 2023 Oberlin Alumni Magazine. “It was one of the things I liked about opera. Whenever I got a role, I would go research why they wrote the opera, the story that the opera’s based on, the time period.”

At Oberlin, Giddens trained as an opera singer under Marlene Rosen. The professor specifically chose the promising young musician to be part of her studio. “I watched an opera on TV,” Giddens said, describing what drew her to the musical form. “Literally, I’d never seen an opera. I bought an opera compilation CD with [Placido] Domingo and people like that on it, and that’s all I knew of opera. I just knew they sang all the time, and in musical theater they had to talk on stage. And I was like I hate speaking in public, so I’m gonna go with opera.”

After graduating from Oberlin, Giddens moved back home to North Carolina, where she started contra dancing and expanded her musical palette by taking up banjo and fiddle and, eventually, forming the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Today, Giddens is maintaining her usual busy schedule. That includes creating a 10-part video series about the banjo on Wondrium and hosting a new PBS series called My Music. She’s also serving as the 2023 Ojai Festival Music Director, which takes place June 8 to 11. The festival features the world premiere of Omar’s Journey, described as an “Ojai-commissioned work for voices and chamber ensemble drawn from Omar” and “framed by traditional music that traces the journey of the real-life Omar Ibn Said from Senegal to the Carolinas.” Among the soloists taking part is tenor and fellow Oberlin alum Limmie Pulliam ’98.

The day after Giddens received the Pulitzer Prize, she announced her first solo album in six years, You’re the One, out August 18 on Nonesuch Records. Produced By Jack Splash (Alicia Keys, Solange), the album is her first collection of original songs and was introduced with the title track, a song inspired by her son. 

The Pulitzer Prizes, which were named after the journalist and newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, are one of the most prestigious honors awarded to writers and artists. Pulitzers were first awarded in 1917, with the first prize for music—which awards $15,000 for a “distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the year”—was given out in 1943. 

In addition to Giddens, other Pulitzer Prize winners who have graduated from Oberlin include:

  • George Walker ’41, (1996 Pulitzer Prize for Music)
  • Michael Dirda ’70 (1993 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism)
  • Vijay Seshadri ’74 (2014 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry)
  • Franz Wright ’77 (2004 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry)
  • Emily Nussbaum ’88 (2016 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism)
  • Du Yun ’01 (2017 Pulitzer Prize for Music)

You may also like…

A Foundation for Fellowships

July 16, 2024

In the 2024-25 academic year, 19 Obies have been awarded Fulbright grants, breaking Oberlin’s previous record of honorees in a single academic year. The Fellowships and Awards office located in CELA, is a big part of this Fulbright success.
a student and professor looking at science equipment

Phoebe Brown ’24 Earns Fulbright to Spain

July 11, 2024

Phoebe Brown ’24 has earned a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) to Spain for the 2024-2025 academic year, giving her the opportunity to teach English in an early education school in the Canary Islands.
Student and faculty discuss one on one in class room.