Thursday, July 11, 2013

Lola Oduwole Brings Sally Hemings to Life

Many know – at least superficially – the story of Sally Hemings and her intimate relationship with Thomas Jefferson, which reportedly began in Paris during Jefferson's tenure as Minister to France. Fewer know that a musical composition based on a fictitious Sally Hemings "diary" was commissioned by African-American opera singer Florence Quivar, written by African-American playwright Sandra Seaton, and set to music by Anglo-American composer William Bolcom. The song cycle* "From the Diary of Sally Hemings" was first performed by Quivar at the Library of Congress in March 2001.

Image from Sandra Seaton Web site

Twelve years later, British opera singer Lola Oduwole and I sat in a Paris café to discuss Oduwole's plans to revive this musical performance in Europe.

Lola Oduwole
Image courtesy of the singer

Of Nigerian descent, Lola was born in London and raised in the south of England until the age of 11, when she returned to London. She spent the rest of her childhood and young adulthood there. She is a classically-trained opera singer, having spent six years studying at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London (4 years in the traditional program and 2 years in the graduate program). She currently lives in Belgium and comes to Paris once a month for voice lessons with a special trainer to further develop her instrument and her technique.

Lola learned about "From the Diary of Sally Hemings" years ago. She found the history of both the composition and the protagonist of the piece intriguing, and is currently researching and rehearsing the role. She has been approached by the Handelsbeurs Concert Hall in Ghent, Belgium to produce the show and sing the role of Sally Hemings. The director of the Flemish Opera company (Vlaamse Opera, with performance venues in Ghent and Antwerp), has also expressed interest.

The task of interpreting Sally Hemings operatically has caused Lola to view Paris in a new light. Hemings and Jefferson spent roughly two years together here (1787-1789) and Lola says that much of the song cycle is based on Hemings' experiences in France. Now, when she comes to Paris, she is "in search of" Sally Hemings. She seeks to walk where Hemings walked and drink in the atmosphere of the French capital with the intent to infuse her performance with it. She would like to produce "From the Diary of Sally Hemings" for Parisian audiences before the show debuts in Belgium.

Lola also sees Paris as a potential place to live. She loves the energy and ambiance of the city and the diversity of its people, and believes that Paris will provide more opportunities to work in her chosen field compared to the idyllic yet provencial town of Ghent, where she currently lives. She is interested in exploring professional activities outside the realm of classical opera and sees more possibilities here. She also says that moving here would provide her with a strong impetus to improve her French!

*A song cycle is a group of songs designed to be performed in a sequence as a single entity.


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