insightful in-depth reviews

21, Nov 2017
photo of Alyson Cambridge in The Crypt by Andrew Ousley

Thomas Jefferson and his slave

by Steve Cohen
The Cultural Critic

This review is an expansion of an article that appeared originally in DC Metro Theater Arts

William Bolcom’s composition, From the Diary of Sally Hemings, could not be more timely. With America’s racial tensions, and with the recent uproar about sexual aggression by powerful men, this piece explores the sexual relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave.

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 called The Crypt Sessions, produced in this venue by Unison Media. Excerpts from Elizabeth Cree, the murder mystery opera by Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell, were performed here before its premiere by Opera Philadelphia earlier in 2017.

Hemings left no diary nor any other document. The text here is imagined by the playwright Sandra Seaton, who says “My portrait of Sally Hemings is based on my own family history.” Historians have concluded that Jefferson and the racially-mixed Hemings produced six children, starting in 1787, eight years after Jefferson’s wife died. He never remarried. Was Sally his concubine, his lover, or his victim? Jefferson apparently was faithful to Sally over 38 years, suggesting that she was more common-law wife than plaything, yet some scholars allege rape. The sex appears to have been consensual, but she was only 14 years old at the relationship’s start and he was 44. Moreover, she was his property.

The language of this song cycle is poetic rather than reportorial. We hear that Jefferson takes Sally to Paris (as a servant for his 14-year-old daughter) and introduces her to the French language, culture and cuisine. There, Sally Hemings becomes aware of a slave-free society. Naturally, she is reluctant to return to the United States. She remembers Jefferson’s words: “Come back to America. No work to stain your tender hands. The run of the house. A servant of your own. Your own pen and quill. Come back with me.”

Sally never forgets the freedom that Paris promised or the wider world it offered. When he takes her back to Monticello, Jefferson gives Sally a superior position compared to all his other slaves. “Alone in his sanctum sanctorum, I call him Mister. No woman goes there but me.” But it is an equivocal situation: When Jefferson’s guests sit down to dinner, Sally has to hide behind the drapes. And she sings that she realizes there will be “no room for me in your graveyard.”

Jefferson was confused 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. 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 is a striking woman who 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 lirico spinto soprano with an unusually 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 chose the site because of “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.