A multimedia recital presented by Victory Hall Opera is taking a musical look at what Sally Hemings’ life may have been like after her years at Monticello were over.
“Sally on West Main,” which will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in the Music Resource Center’s LeRoi Moore Performance Hall, includes a performance of “From the Diary of Sally Hemings,” a monodrama by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer William Bolcom and playwright Sandra Seaton. It will be intertwined with footage from “West Main Street,” a documentary film by Chris Farina and Reid Oechslin, and a new video installation by Marisa Williamson that laces everything together.
Soprano Alyson Cambridge, who performed in Victory Hall Opera’s “Monticello Overheard” performance at Monticello last year, is coming back to Charlottesville to sing the role of Sally Hemings. Cambridge, who has sung at the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, Carnegie Hall and London’s Royal Hall, to name a few, sings the role on the recording of “From the Diary of Sally Hemings.” Justina Lee will be the pianist.
“Being a biracial woman, it has been an honor to portray her,” Cambridge said. “One of the greatest musical things is that I got to work with the composer and librettist.”
Bolton and Seaton contacted Cambridge about the project in 2009, and she flew to join them at work and learn more. Soon, Cambridge was diving into her own research about Hemings’ life as a slave at Monticello, her lifelong ties to President Thomas Jefferson and what the future would have held for her after Jefferson’s death.
Plenty of scholarship and ink have filled in the lives of founding fathers from the time period, but it can be difficult to find detailed information about women in general — and enslaved women in particular.
“She was a slave, and very little is written about any slave,” Cambridge said. “They were considered second-class citizens, and very little as written about them.”
There’s a tendency today in some quarters to picture what a romance between the president and his late wife’s half-sister may have looked like, but Cambridge said there’s no escaping the problems it presents.
“Was it a consensual relationship? Was it even possible for a president to have a consensual relationship with a slave?” she said. “There’s a lot of debate over their relationship.”
“Sally on West Main” aims to follow Hemings into her future after the life-altering relationship — whatever it entailed — ended with Jefferson’s death. The creative team at Victory Hall Opera wanted to take a look at what kind of life Hemings may have led after she came down from the mountain after Jefferson’s death in 1826 and moved to Charlottesville, where she died in 1835.
“It’s sort of merging the past with the present,” Cambridge said of the piece. “I hope that this piece will continue and encourage this discussion in a positive way. I’m just excited to see how it will all come together.
“I really applaud the company. What I love about Victory Hall is they take chances,” Cambridge said. “They’re groundbreaking works. Last year’s was my first time singing with them, and I found it very musically satisfying.”
Learn more about the work at victoryhallopera.org.