The Fort Worth Opera chose to celebrate the opening of its 70th season by commissioning a new opera, with music composed by David T. Little to a libretto by his frequent collaborator Royce Vavrek.
The opera’s commission was intended to commemorate President John F. Kennedy’s early morning hotel stay and campaign breakfast in Fort Worth in the hours before his assassination in the infamous motorcade in nearby Dallas.
[Below: John F. Kennedy (Matthew Worth, right) dreams about that time when he and the young Jacqueline Bouvier (Daniela Mack, left) discovered a mutual attraction on a Hyannis beach; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph for the Fort Worth Opera.]
An excellent cast of North American singers was assembled for the world premiere performances, led by baritone Matthew Worth and mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack. The opera was conducted by Steven Osgood.
Reality and Surreality
In the Little-Vavrek operatic scheme, the cast of 14 principals are divided into four categories: Mortals, Fates, Apparitions and Texas politicians. Only Worth’s JFK and Mack’s Jackie Kennedy are considered mortal (except for a Reporter, played by Brian Wallin.)
The immortal Fates are played by Talise Trevigne and Sean Panikkar, who each appear in three different forms at various times within the opera.
All the other cast members are apparitions – morphine-induced hallucinations – that are conjured up by the drug injections that Jackie Kennedy administers to the president to deal with his severe back pain.
The hallucinations include two historical personages who manifest bizarre behaviors, Daniel Okulitch’s very funny Vice President Lyndon Johnson and Casey Finnigan’s over-the-top Nikita Khruschchev (the latter who resides on the moon with the Soviet Red Army).
[Below: President Kennedy (Matthew Worth, center right in t-shirt and back brace visits the apparition of USSR premiere Nikita Khrushchev (Casey Finnigan, center, below hammer and sickle) on the moon; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Fort Worth Opera.]
Cree Carrico performs the role of Rosemary Kennedy, the president’s sister who in real life suffered from a mental illness that led to her undergoing a lobotomy. Her apparitions appear in both her mentally ill and lobotomized states.
Another apparition is Jackie Onassis (sung by Katharine Goeldner), representing Jackie Kennedy’s later life. The two ages of Jackie (sung by Mack and Goeldner) take part in a long and affecting trio with the female Fate (sung by Trevigne) in her hotel maid manifestation.
The Texas politicians – Billie Sol Estes (Jared Welch), Ralph Yarborough (Christopher Leach), John Connally (Brett Bode), Raymond J. Buck (Clay Thompson) and Jim Wright (John Salvesen) – accompany the apparition of Vice President Johnson as he invites the Texas Democratic party leaders into President Kennedy’s bathroom where the President is soaking in the tub.
[Below: As President Kennedy (Matthew Worth, far left) soaks in his bathtub, the apparition of Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Daniel Okulitch, in white suit, center) appears, accompanied by Texas politicians; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Fort Worth Opera.]
Thaddeus Strassberger’s Scenic Design and Staging
The imaginative scenic design and stage direction was by Thaddeus Strassberger. The centerpiece of his sets is a suite of Hotel Texas rooms that rotate between bedroom, bathroom and a sitting area elsewhere in the suite.
These sets provide the opportunity for the mortal presidential couple to express their thoughts – in the case of Jackie, the inherent sadness from the depression that accompanied the loss of an infant son, in the case of John the wild range of images that morphine induces.
Over the years, I have found Thaddeus Strassberger’s productions to be among my personal favorite opera productions. The greater the opportunity that Strassberger has to unleash his imagination, the more absorbing are the results.
The vivid scene of the John’s and Rosemary’s visit to Nikita Khruschchev on the moon recalls previous Strassberger manipulations of familiar political images from the height of the Soviet Empire [see Michael Chioldi, Micaela Oeste Enrich Washington National Opera’s Theatrically Absorbing “Hamlet” – May 22, 2010.]
[Below: President Kennedy (Matthew Worth, lying on bed) sleeps while Jacqueline Kennedy (Daniela Mack, on the floor) rests near him as the fates Henry Rathbone (Sean Panikkar, standing left) in the guise of a Secret Service Agent and Clara Harris (Talise Trevigne, standing right) in the guise of a Texas Hotel maid, offer their comments; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Fort Worth Opera.]
Strassberger brilliantly crowded the movers and shakers of the Texas Democratic party into the President’s bathroom where the President is bathing. Even if this event is occurring only in the President’s drugged mind, it is a stroke of theatrical genius!
Thoughts on the New Opera
The sponsorship of a larger work by the team of composer and librettist who successfully launched the chamber opera “Dog Days” was a notable investment by the Fort Worth Opera. It focuses attention on the vibrant community of Fort Worth, where John Kennedy spent part of the last day of his life.
I commend the performances of all of the cast members and musical staff and the inventiveness of Thaddeus Strassberger’s direction and scenic design. The opera unquestionably has advanced the careers of Matthew Worth, Daniela Mack and others with key roles in the new opera.
Little’s pulsating harmonies, jazzy percussion, and expanses of melody will remind some of such composers as Glass and Adams. One has no problem imagining important future operatic works from this composer.
[Below: the President, Vice President and their wives appear for a Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce breakfast prior to the president’s motorcade in Dallas; edited image, based on a Morty Sohl photograph, courtesy of the Fort Worth Opera.]
Time will tell what dividends the Fort Worth Opera’s investment will pay. I am a strong proponent of contemporary American opera, and applaud adventuresome fare, but am also interested in seeing and hearing works that have a chance to enter the regular performance repertory. “JFK” meets the adventuresome criterion, even if it is not yet obvious that “JFK” is on track for operatic immortality.
If there is a problem, I suspect it’s not the music. I believe the opera’s faults lie in the libretto. Unlike several American operas of recent years that are based on successful films, or plays, or ideas that have a dramatic core, “JFK” is a series of episodes rather than a historical narrative or even a particularly absorbing story.
The opera will travel next to L’Opéra de Montréal, where it is possible to imagine some extensive reworking (although a couple of scenes that might seem the most outrageous I regard as the most successful.)
It’s possible to imagine a range of reactions to the opera and its libretto. However, I doubt its long-term viability in its present form.