The New York premiere of William Bolcom’s composition, From the Diary of Sally Hemings, could not be more timely. With so much news focused on racial tensions, as well as the recent uproar over sexual aggression by powerful men, this piece explores the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave with whom he fathered six children over 38 years.
The mini-opera for solo soprano was performed by Alyson Cambridge in the crypt beneath the Church of the Intercession at Broadway and 155th Street in New York — the neighborhood known as Washington Heights. The event is part of an adventurous series produced by Unison Media in this venue. Elizabeth Cree, the murder mystery opera by Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell, was sampled here before its premiere by Opera Philadelphia.
Hemings left no diary nor any other document. The text here is imagined by the playwright Sandra Seaton, who describes herself as “an African American who grew up in the South.” Historians have concluded that Jefferson had sexual relations with the racially-mixed Hemings, starting eight years after his wife died. He never remarried. The question remains, was Sally his concubine, his lover, or his victim? Jefferson’s apparent faithfulness to Sally over 38 years suggests that she was more common-law wife than plaything, yet some scholars allege rape because she was his property.
The language is poetic rather than reportorial. We hear that Jefferson takes the 14-year-old Sally to Paris (as a servant for his 14-year-old daughter) and introduces her to the French language, culture and cuisine. This Sally Hemings becomes aware of a slave-free society beyond her own time and place. Naturally, she is reluctant to return to the United States. She never forgets the freedom that Paris promised or the wider world it offered. When he takes her back to his Monticello, Jefferson gives Sally a private room and superior position compared to all his other slaves. It is an equivocal situation: She is elevated above all other servants, but when Jefferson’s guests sit down to dinner, Sally has to hide behind the drapes.
Jefferson was conflicted on the topic of slavery. He wrote in 1785, “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals un-depraved by such circumstances.” According to Hemings in this piece, he struggles to maintain a balance.
Bolcom is a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who’s known for writing in the style of cabaret and Broadway. This score is totally different for him. It is in no specific key, reflecting the ambivalence of Heming’s position. Harsh tone clusters abound, reminiscent of Arnold Schoenberg or Henry Cowell but with an occasional blues flavor.
Alyson Cambridge was born in 1980 to a Guyanese father and Danish-American mother. She studied at the Curtis Institute of Music and made her Met Opera debut in 2005 as Frasquita in Bizet’s Carmen. She says, “I connected with a part of my personal history with this piece.” Cambridge is a striking woman with a powerful voice and she communicated Hemings’s feelings superbly. The eminent pianist Michael Fennelley was a strong support on the Yamaha.
Andrew Ousley, the organizer and curator of the series, says he was smitten by “the gloriously creepy nature of the Crypt” and the utterly unique acoustics that are rich and reverberant while still intimate and detailed. Audience size is limited to 49 because of the tiny space. The unconventional programming will continue in the new year.
Running Time: One hour, with no intermission.
From the Diary of Sally Hemings was presented on November 15, 2017 by Unison Media as part of The Crypt Sessions series at the Church of the Intercession – Broadway and 155th Street, in New York, NY. Tickets to future events in The Crypt Sessions series may be purchased online.