Hemings as heroine: Experimental opera explores the life of Jefferson’s mistress

Soprano Alyson Cambridge prepares to tell the story of Sally Hemings’ brief time living on West Main Street in Victory Hall Opera’s Sally on West Main. Photo by Eze Amos Soprano Alyson Cambridge prepares to tell the story of Sally Hemings’ brief time living on West Main Street in Victory Hall Opera’s Sally on West Main. Photo by Eze Amos

The word “opera” sometimes comes with some preconceived notions attached. It might bring to mind complex stories fraught with drama and murder, created by long-dead composers. Unless you’re intimately familiar with the art form, it may also seem less than relevant to modern society, a type of entertainment that belongs to previous generations.

Such an assumption, however, would overlook Victory Hall Opera. Now in its fourth season, the Charlottesville-based company produces startlingly modern and experimental work, and productions that are locally resonant, as exemplified by the upcoming Sally on West Main, named for Sally Hemings, who was enslaved by—and likely mistress to—Thomas Jefferson.

VHO’s artistic director, Miriam Gordon- Stewart, says opera is generally “a very international industry,” but Victory Hall is determined to make it local. “All of our productions have some kind of tie to Charlottesville, and to some degree, to Charlottesville history.” Sally on West Main, which focuses on an “underexplored moment in Sally Hemings’ story, in which she left Monticello and moved downtown to West Main Street,” is no exception.

Gordon-Stewart says the work is told “through the lens of the people who have experienced its legacy—mainly black women in this country, and in this case, African American artists.” Although Hemings has recently come into the limelight, most of her story was not recorded. Historians are left to fill in the gaps, while artists are left to imagine what sort of person Hemings might have been. Gordon-Stewart says the African American artists in question “have, in some ways, the best chance of illuminating this character.”

One such artist is librettist and playwright Sandra Seaton, whose song cycle From the Diary of Sally Hemings—created nearly 20 years ago with composer William Bolcom—is a piece of the collage that is Sally on West Main.

The original libretto, essentially a musical exploration of Hemings’ life, was supposed to be no longer than 12 minutes, but it grew into a 45-minute song cycle—and that was just the start of Seaton’s unforeseen preoccupation with Hemings. After From the Diary of Sally Hemings was put to music by Bolcom and premiered in 2001, Seaton continued to research the enslaved woman’s largely forgotten life. “I just had a problem letting her go once I started thinking about her,” she says.

Two plays also resulted from Seaton’s research—Sally and A Bed Made in Heaven—both focusing on Hemings and both addressing the emergence of Jefferson and his mistress into public consideration and debate. Seaton says this relationship is largely what continues to draw her to Hemings, although she stresses that her work is as historically accurate as possible. “One thing I did not want to write was a bodice-ripper.”

Considering the renown Seaton’s work has received, it’s safe to say she’s avoided bodice-ripping status. Alyson Cambridge, a soprano opera singer and the star of Sally on West Main, would certainly agree. She first assumed the musical role of Hemings in 2009, when she recorded a performance of Seaton’s song cycle. After the album premiered in 2010, Cambridge reprised her role eight years later in Victory Hall’s pastiche opera Monticello Overheard. During this show, Gordon-Stewart approached Cambridge with the idea that would become Sally on West Main.

Assuming Hemings’ persona is no easy feat, but Cambridge says she feels such a performance is vital. “Race relations are still very much an issue…and I think that looking back at our history, examining it, having healthy and insightful dialogue about it, is really the only way to get to a way forward,” she says. “I think that’s a really wonderful thing to do, and I think doing it through music and a presentation of this nature is a great thing for Charlottesville.”

While Cambridge dives into the history of her role, Sally on West Main’s multimedia components provide a modern twist. Portions of Chris Farina’s locally renowned documentary West Main Street will be screened along with various projects by Marisa Williamson, another artist whose creations have been heavily influenced by what she calls the “spectral figure” of Hemings.

Williamson works largely with film, both behind the scenes and as an actor. Like Cambridge, she has also taken on the persona of Hemings—in 2013, Williamson visited Monticello dressed as Hemings and staged a “mock reenactment,” in which Hemings sang karaoke and dashed through the grounds. “I was doing unusual things and trying to raise the question of what it means to reclaim the space as someone who used to live there,” she says.

Some of these “reenactments” will be among her video contributions, but Williamson also plans to include unseen material—she says she has a wealth of unreleased footage. As she’s been for Seaton, Hemings has proven a continually fascinating and troubling artistic subject for the filmmaker. “I’m trying to make visible a past that has been suppressed,” Williamson says.

Although it’s difficult to imagine what exactly Sally on West Main will resemble, it’s seems certain that every artist involved shares Williamson’s mission statement. “I’m trying to make sense of what it means for Sally Hemings to live on in the present,” she says. “In the same way that Jefferson is so powerfully evoked or embodied everywhere you look in Charlottesville, I want to figure out what that looks like for Sally Hemings.”

See Sally on West Main at the LeRoi Moore Performance Hall at the Music Resource Center May 25.

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