Hallucination, Assassination and Orchestration: JFK the Opera Comes to Fort Worth

Baritone Matthew Worth effectively displays the weaknesses and flip-switch charisma of the president.EXPAND
Baritone Matthew Worth effectively displays the weaknesses and flip-switch charisma of the president.
Fort Worth Opera

Anyone alive on November 23, 1963, remembers the nightmarish quality of that day — and the international stigma it attached to Dallas and to the whole state of Texas. Saturday night at Bass Performance Hall, with the premiere of David T. Little’s opera JFK, Fort Worth came face to face with its role in the tragedy. Surprisingly — at least at first — the saga of Kennedy’s final 12 hours in Forth Worth before his fateful trip to Dallas is cast largely in the form of hallucination, nightmare and myth.

Before Saturday night’s premiere, composer Little and librettist Royce Vavrek had already jolted area opera-goers with the raw, post-apocalyptic vision of 2015's chamber opera Dog Days, including what was probably the first portrayal of masturbation and pot-smoking on the operatic stage in these parts.

While an entirely different sort of beast than Dog Days, JFK is likewise laden with shocking and unexpected images of a president who, for people of my generation (I was in grade school on the day Kennedy died), is lionized as a martyr. After an almost ritualized, oratorio-style opening, the viewer witnesses Kennedy in the bathtub of his room at the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, with first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, in her slip, administering a shot of morphine to her pain-wracked husband.

This elides into a long sequence in which the audience witnesses the President’s drug-induced hallucinations: Khrushchev, rotund and boastful, threatens nuclear annihilation; Kennedy’s mentally ill sister Rosemary teases and tortures him; and a particularly ludicrous, nightmare version of Lyndon Johnson boasts of the size of his penis and brings a dominatrix into the room.

While the hallucination sequence makes up a large portion of the opera, other elements are equally significant. Just as Shakespeare and Marlowe introduced fictional and supernatural aspects to Elizabethan historical drama, Little and Vavrek introduce a hotel maid and secret service agent who are manifestations of the Greek fates — and of Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, actual historical figures from the time of Lincoln’s assassination. References to the “actor with three names” — a sly evocation of both John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, without naming either — add to the abundant supernatural and speculative elements.

Along with the strong scenes focused on the conjectured hallucinations of John F. Kennedy himself, the most striking and unforgettable moment arrives in the second act when first lady Jacqueline Kennedy (mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack) confronts her future self, Jacqueline Onassis (mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner), launching into a soul-shattering aria which turns into a brilliant duet, and, when the maid/Clara/Fate (soprano Talise Trevigne) joins in, a trio.

This scene, incidentally, plays out simultaneously on stage with a Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce luncheon — a historical event at which, one must suppose, a few members of Saturday night’s audience had been present.

If all of this seems hopelessly complex, rest assured the drama and ideas flowed seamlessly, thanks not only to a beautifully structured libretto that pulls these ideas together, but a score in which a smooth quasi-minimalism provides a foundation for frequent journeys into radiant neo-romanticism. The constant inventiveness and musical impetus recalls Puccini, while the solid characterizations of both Kennedys evokes the fate-driven personalities of Verdi. And, the several grand choral scenes suggest both of those Italian masters. In terms of the craft of vocal writing, while there are no notably striking vocal fireworks, the writing was uniformly grateful in the best operatic tradition.

Mattie Ulrich's costumes threaten to steal the show. That's JFK in the bathtub, hallucinating.EXPAND
Mattie Ulrich's costumes threaten to steal the show. That's JFK in the bathtub, hallucinating.
Ft Worth Opera

This tapestry of fate and larger-than-life characters based on real people played out on a handsome, neon-lit stage, neatly suggesting the intersection of fantasy, dream and historical reality, complete with projected historical film clips. Thaddeus Strassberger designed the sets and directed the production, which included wonderfully evocative costumes by Mattie Ulrich, complete with big hair and pillbox hats (and a replica of the famous pink Chanel suit the first lady donned on that fateful day).

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Mezzo-soprano Mack brought a vocally dark quality to the role of the first lady, while baritone Matthew Worth effectively displayed the weaknesses and flip-switch charisma of the president. Among a flawless cast of secondary roles, tenor Casey Finnigan as Khrushchev and bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch as the blustery LBJ were particularly memorable.

Under the leadership of general director Darren K. Woods, Fort Worth Opera has maintained an almost stubborn devotion to the presentation of new operas (generally works premiered at other companies in recent years) both on the main stage and, in the case of chamber operas, in alternative venues. JFK was commissioned in honor of the 70th anniversary of the company (the oldest in Texas) and the 10th anniversary of the company’s festival format. Budgetary restraints — a tired refrain in Fort Worth performing arts these days — actually forced postponement of the premiere by a year, though the anniversary concept remained in place, thanks to the flexibility of the concept of “anniversary” and “anniversary season.”

Fortunately, while choosing a theme related to the city’s history, the company leadership, the composer, and the librettist avoided the trap of boosterism or the feel-good side of history, deliberately, in the best operatic tradition, raising questions and probing sore spots, while creating a musical and visual spectacle well worth the attention of any opera lover.


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