Monticello: The Opera

Monticello: The Opera

Synopsis for “Monticello” and statements by the librettist and composer:

ACT I Time:Winter, 1803

Newspaper accounts of a miscegenational affair between President Thomas Jefferson and one of his slaves have been causing consternation across the country. The news has spread to Monticello, where Sally Hemings, the slave in question, learns with horror from her freeman brother, James, that her name is being bandied about as the president’s whore. Despite James’ fiery denunciation, Sally defends Jefferson, a widower of many years, trying to articulate their delicate, secret relationship of more than 15 years. James urges that Sally demand her freedom, as he himself did successfully several years before. A group of newly purchased slaves arrives at the plantation, some of them badly beaten by former masters. Jefferson, seeing their condition, vows that nothing like that will happen to them at Monticello. Nearby, Jefferson’s daughter, Patsy, picks up the mail to see the Jefferson-Hemings story headlined across the newspaper. She is horrified that this humiliating reality of plantation life has now threatened their family and perhaps the presidency. She takes the tale to her father’s study, where he steadfastly refuses to discuss it. Instead, he begs her to come back to Washington with him as surrogate wife to help still rumors. Patsy, always faithful, agrees. That evening, James, slightly drunk, confronts Jefferson on the strength of the public rumors, demanding that as president he act to free all the slaves. The discussion becomes bitter with James flinging insulting denunciations and storming out. Later that night, strengthened by an inspiring family slave momento she received from her mother, Sally goes to Jefferson’s room to confront him, acknowledging to herself and to him for the first time the inherent inequality of their relationship. He begs her to stay, with the promise that, if in his power, he would free Monticello’s slaves at his death. Jefferson, Patsy, and their party depart for Washington on a snowy morning, leaving Sally with effective responsibility for the house during Patsy’s absence. Moments later, she is informed that her brother James, despairing of any future, has shot himself dead on Monticello property.

ACT II Time: 1823

On this hot July summer 23 years later, with Jefferson near death, Sally learns of plans to sell Monticello’s slaves to pay off the estate’s huge debts. Horrified, she begs Patsy to persuade Jefferson to change his mind. Patsy flatly refuses. Sally goes to him in a last desperate, vain effort, but at 86 he is barely lucid, determined only to stay alive long enough to greet July 4, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. As Jefferson expires, indeed on the 50th Fourth, bells ring out the celebration of freedom for all people. At Monticello, however, we see the slaves being herded off to the market to be separated and sold. With their final departure, a rebellious spark ignites them, and they sing defiantly of a new age, not far in the future, when they will be free.

Notes from the librettist:

In 1802, a journalist with a grudge against Thomas Jefferson printed the charge that the president had taken as mistress Sally Hemings, one of the slaves at Monticello. Soon the newspapers of the young nation – just a little more than a decade old – were bursting with rumor, innuendo and blistering attack, inflamed by rabid hostility between Jefferson’s Republicans and rival Federalists. The president remained above the fray, refusing to comment, allowing his Republican colleagues to defend him against increasingly vituperative assaults. Of course we now know from DNA studies that Jefferson and Sally Hemings, half-sister to his late wife, were lovers. The relationship may have begun when she was barely adolescent. The story erupted as a national scandal in 1802, and this period forms the heart of the opera. The public exposure exploded a delicate balance of surface harmony at Monticello, bringing out in sharp relief the unspoken tension among Jefferson, his daughter and chief housekeeper, Patsy, and Sally Hemings and her family. The fact there were deep blood ties between them, white and black, presented a fascinating gothic dimension. My interest in the subject emerged from so-called revisionist scholarship of the past two decades, which attempted with considerable success to penetrate the “marble icon” image of Thomas Jefferson, preserved over 200 years by adoring biographers (most of them wrong in insisting that Jefferson would never have had a carnal relationship with a slave.) America’s greatest inspirational leader, Jefferson was a man of high passions, sexual and romantic (his wife’s early death nearly killed him), who despised and avoided direct confrontation, who hated public speaking and did it poorly; when stressed, he suffered frequent crushing migraine headaches, which could put him to bed for a week. While he spoke and wrote vigorously against slavery, his views turned conservative with the years. His actions to end or amend it were dilatory throughout his public career and after. His written views on Negroes were uncharacteristically harsh. I view the action of this drama as a living metaphor of America’s most compelling dilemma: its ambivalence about race and the clash of its enshrined ideal of freedom with the realities of its failures. History leaves us very few details about the specifics of the Hemings-Jefferson liaison. It does leave us with a fascinating conundrum to puzzle with as a part of our effort to make sense of the emotional, violent, biological, and unfinished story of America’s racial divide. Legal scholar-historian Annette Gordon Reed, one of the seminal new Jefferson historians, writes: “In the end it will probably be left to the novelists, playwrights and poets to get at the unencumbered meaning of the (Hemings-Jefferson) story. Done the right way (it) will yield universal truths as important…as any…in history books.”

Notes from the composer:

Roy Aarons and I were brought together by George White who was then president of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center. George sent me the libretto to “Monticello” saying that he felt my music would suit the work. I responded to the story, the quality of the writing, the dramatic balances, the characters, and the overall musicality. The libretto deals with potent political and social issues, but in the music, I am concerned with the underlying feelings of the characters: love, hate, anger, and the need to be free.