Jefferson and Poe. The president and the poet. An advocate of reason as pure and cool as an icicle versus an artist as impetuous and changeable as a wind shear.
Several years ago, Daniel Mark Epstein, a local poet, began to wonder what would happen if the two men ever met.
It was unlikely, he concluded, but possible: For five months in 1826, both were living in or near the small town of Charlottesville, Va.
What if Poe fell in love with Jefferson's daughter? And what if the daughter was the mixed-race offspring of the former president's liaison with Sally Hemings?
With composer Damon Ferrante, Epstein turned his musings into an opera titled Jefferson and Poe. The piece makes its world premiere here Nov. 17-20 at Theatre Project, and then travels to New York for a weekend of performances.
Jefferson and Poe is billed as "a romantic comedy" and needless to say, it's a whim, a fantasy, not meant to be taken as historic truth, but delicious to consider nonetheless.
Each man is an icon, though they could have not been more different. For Epstein, Jefferson represents the quintessential figure from the Age of Enlightenment, which held that humans would find happiness by allowing themselves to be ruled by logical thinking. As the third U.S. president famously said: "Every man's own reason must be his oracle."
Poe is the embodiment of the Romantic era, whose proponents were interested in precisely the things that can't be explained rationally: nature, magic and the supernatural, the free play of the emotions, and creativity.
"Jefferson was the epitome of the 18th-century rationalist intelligence, and Poe was the epitome of the 19th-century romantic intelligence. I wondered, 'How would those two characters interact?'" Epstein says.
History, alas, disappoints. The sad reality is that Poe enrolled at the University of Virginia (which Jefferson founded) in February 1826, when the former president was ailing and no longer could entertain undergraduates. Jefferson died not quite five months later.
"I took a bit of poetic license," Epstein admits.
That he did, and in more ways than one. Some viewers may be troubled by the work's idealized treatment of the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings, and conclude that the authors are glossing over the horrors of slavery.
The story begins when Poe, perpetually short of cash, visits Jefferson and tries to interest him in a wild investment scheme. The nascent poet accidentally learns that a young woman visiting the house is the mixed-race daughter of Jefferson and Hemings (here called "Sarah"), a slave with whom Jefferson has had a decades-long sexual relationship. The poet tries to persuade the former president to free his servant and his daughter.
In the opera, the liaison between statesman and slave is portrayed as true love. Sarah is depicted as the only person close enough to Jefferson to broach difficult subjects with him. Their relationship seems unmarred by the nasty power dynamics of an owner and his human property, or for that matter, of older man and younger woman. (Jefferson was 30 years Hemings' senior.)
Epstein points out that Jefferson and Poe is permeated with the issues of liberty and freedom. Among other things, Sarah and Catherine (the daughter) have a lovely duet in which the older woman imagines what her life would have been like if she had been born in a land without slavery.
"My libretto is a small part of a much larger picture," Epstein says, "and the limits of the form make it hard for me to show that picture in its entirety. We know that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings were really in love. She was treated quite well for the time."
In real life, while Jefferson never freed Hemings (scholars think that one of his daughters filled out the requisite papers shortly after the former president's death), he did free all of Hemings' children, who were reputed even then to be his offspring - a relationship given further credence in 1998 by DNA testing.
Epstein, 57, is an award-winning poet and the author of seven books of verse. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review and The Atlantic Monthly. He's also the author of four acclaimed biographies - on Aimee Semple McPherson, Nat King Cole, Edna St. Vincent Millay and most recently, a combined biography of Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln.
Ferrante, 33, has just gotten to the point where he is receiving commissions reliably enough to pay the rent. His first opera, Super Double Lite, had its premiere on Broadway in 2004, the same year he graduated from Peabody.
The two men met several years ago, when Ferrante approached Epstein and proposed putting the poet's verse to music. The result, The Mountain and Tidewater Songs, is a set of six pieces for baritone, cello, piano and violin. It had its premiere earlier this year.
"I've always been flattered by Damon's interest in my work," Epstein says. "As a poet, you assume that almost no one reads your books. You tell yourself that if just one person understands what you're trying to do, it will be enough. And here was a reader who was so enthusiastic and insightful."
While working on the song cycle, Ferrante suggested that the pair do an opera together. Epstein pulled out Jefferson and Poe, a play he had been working on intermittently for the past decade, and completely reworked it. "I probably reduced the word count by 80 percent," he says.
Once Epstein had finished the libretto, Ferrante began composing the music. "I prefer to work that way, because I get a lot of melodic ideas from the words and phrases," he says.
Each character has a different musical style. Jefferson's melodic lines, for instance, "are balanced, classical, statuesque," Ferrante says.
In contrast, the songs the composer wrote for Poe are ebullient, full of sudden shifts of direction. "I took Romantic ideas from Schumann and Liszt," Ferrante says. "But I also wanted to make his music very rhythmic to get at Poe's recklessness, youthfulness, energy and drive."
Performer Ryan Ebright says his greatest challenge is that the opera's depiction of his character, Poe, is at odds with the poet's public image as brilliant, but unbalanced. As best Ebright can determine, Poe's youthful years showed no indications of the melancholy and madness associated with the author of The Raven and The Tell-Tale Heart.
"As a student, Poe was very bright and outgoing," Ebright says. "He was president of an athletic club. He was reckless and ran up a lot of gambling debts, but there was no sign of mental instability that I can see."
In the opera, Poe is the catalyst that brings about a triumphant conclusion. Which, if you think about it, is a bit of an anomaly. Picture someone representing truth, justice and the American way. Possibly you imagined John Wayne riding into town at high noon on a mustang. Or Bogie risking his life to ferry a freedom fighter to safety. You probably didn't envision an impecunious, garret-dwelling, ink-stained wretch who probably has lice and smells funny. A guy who happens to be a poet. A poet, coincidentally, just like the librettist (excepting, of course, the impecunious, garret-dwelling, ink-stained, bug-ridden and funny-smelling part).
Epstein laughs, and fesses up: "When I finally had the chance, I couldn't resist making a poet the hero."
Jefferson and Poe runs at Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. Nov. 17-20. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Nov. 20. Tickets cost $25 for the general public and $15 for seniors and students. Peabody students will be admitted for $10 on Thursday night only. For information, call 410-752-8558, or visit theatreproject.org