My Friend, Opal Whiteley (Françoise D’Orleans)

  • Rob and Opal

I knew Françoise D’Orleans (as Opal preferred to be called) for the last twelve years of her life. I visited her many times and spent countless hours with her talking about her past and her remarkable diary – a book that changed my life and led me on a great adventure.

It all began when a family friend telephoned one day in the 1980s. She was laughing and crying at the same time and said she just finished reading a wonderful book – a diary written by a young girl in and Oregon lumber camp in 1904. She read me some passages and I was smitten. My Opal odyssey had begun

I found out a local had a copy of the diary, as originally published by the Atlantic Monthly in 1920. I borrowed and photocopied the book, spending the next year cutting and pasting pages together to create a dramatic narrative. The musical led me to New York, where I acquired the dramatic rights to the British copyright of the diary and sought out producers.

Meantime, I discovered to my amazement that Françoise was still alive and living in a care center in England, north of London. I made the pilgrimage to meet the diarist – having no inkling that it would be the first of many trips. (It was easy and relatively inexpensive to catch a standby flight to London from New York City.) During these many visits, Françoise and I would sit together for hours, while her caregivers often thoughtfully offered us tea and biscuits, as she told me about her diary and her astonishing life. I asked her many questions and played her songs from my musical, which she called my “opera.” Whenever I was due for a visit, Françoise would announce to her nurses, “Robert from New York is coming. Robert with the moustache!” I would bring her chocolates, fruit, and teddy bears. She was petite, genteel, and regal – receiving me warmly but with dignity and composure – every bit the aristocrat I believe her to be. Françoise became a dear friend, as did her solicitor and her biographer, who helped arrange for me to eventually have actual pages of the diary, which I cherish to this day.

During one of my trips, I visited the Honorable Mrs. Douglas Woodruff, who had known Françoise since the 1930s. My sister accompanied me. She met Mrs. Woodruff’s nephew, Richard Acton (later Lord Acton), and married him within a year.

My musical OPAL won the Richard Rodgers Award (the selection committee was chairman was Stephen Sondheim), which provided funding for a New York production. OPAL opened at the Lamb’s Theatre just off Times Square in 1992, where it received four Outer Critics Circle Award nominations and subsequently the AT&T Award.  Sadly, died Françoise during the rehearsals for the off-Broadway production. My brother-in-law read a eulogy at her funeral.

After the New York production, the Shubert Organization presented OPAL at the George St. Playhouse and Broadway director/choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett premiered a new production in Dallas. OPAL published by Samuel French, Inc. and has had performances around the country. Tonight’s production is the premier of a new version.

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