College of LAS « Illinois

Alumni Profile

Sandra Seaton

Her First Libretto


Growing up in Chicago, Sandra Seaton (AB '71, general curriculum) listened to operas on the radio without paying much attention to the words. "I thought, ‘Why does anybody want to listen to the words?'" she asks, laughing. "It's like ‘it's the economy, stupid'—it's the music, stupid."
She didn't know that someday she'd write the words herself.

At UI, she studied creative writing and immersed herself in the arts, hanging out on Green Street at a coffee shop called the Turk's Head. "I remember writing symbols from a Bergman movie down on a napkin with Roger Ebert," she says.

After earning her MA in creative writing at MSU, she began teaching English at Central Michigan University, where she is now a professor. She also wrote The Will, a play based on the Reconstruction experiences of her great-great-great-grandfather, the son of a black mother and a white father in Tennessee. It included an African-American woman singing Verdi.

William Bolcom, a Pulitzer-prize-winning composer and professor at Central Michigan, saw The Will in May 1999 and asked Seaton if she'd be interested in writing the text for a song cycle about the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, commissioned by mezzo-soprano Florence Quivar and Music Accord, a consortium of performing arts centers that includes the Krannert Center.

At first, Seaton was reluctant. "I'd seen Jefferson in Paris and I really hated that," she says, laughing. Also, the Sally Hemings story had received a great deal of attention, from a TV mini-series to tests of her descendants' DNA. But then she thought about her own family history, the archival research she'd done, and the historical plays she'd written, and thought she'd at least try. "It was scary," she says, "to try to make something new out of it, but I like a challenge, so I said okay."

It was a challenge. Though there is voluminous material on Jefferson and his period, there are no surviving examples of writing by Sally Hemings. After extensive reading, Seaton began to write her imagined Hemings diaries, covering the years from when she was nine years old to her death. "When I think of all the drafts I did—oh, my goodness," she sighs. "And when I think of what the first ones looked like—you don't want to know. They were just really bad."

Besides the challenges presented by the subject matter, the text itself had to be singable. It had to have cadence, artful repetition, and harmonious combinations of sounds. After about a year, she took her first presentable version to the composer. "I was very nervous on my way up to give him the first draft," she admits.

From the many diary entries, Bolcom chose 18. Some he set to music just as they were. Then Bolcom and Seaton went back and forth on specific words. "Sometimes I convinced him to take something out," she explains. "Then I'd call him the next day and say, ‘Put it back in.'"

On March 16, 2001, From the Diary of Sally Hemings premiered at the Library of Congress. Forty-five of Sally Hemings' descendants attended the concert in Coolidge Auditorium, which is in the Jefferson Building. As they entered, they passed the huge marble statue of Thomas Jefferson. "It was wonderful," says Seaton.

The Washington Post praised the text's "subtle, penetrating power." After a subsequent performance, the Kansas City Star hoped the piece will "find its way into the permanent repertoire, for both its music and its message deserve many hearings." Last year, the song cycle was performed in Atlanta, at the Kennedy Center, and at the University of Michigan. Seaton converted the song cycle into a one-woman play about Sally Hemings, which premiered in February at the New York State Writers Institute.

Seaton says the performances were amazing because they "really did complete the whole thing—to hear the words with the music. Every time I hear it, I hear more."

And now does she want people to listen to the text? "Absolutely," she says, smiling. "I'm definitely an advocate of people listening to the words."

Spring 2003
by David Lewman (AB '78, rhetoric)