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Classical 101

A New Opera About John F. Kennedy


The Fort Worth Opera Festival presents the world premiere of JFK, an opera with music by David T. Little, and libretto by Royce Vavrek, April 23, May 1 and May 7. Performances will follow in Philadelphia. This opera should have "legs". I'd like to see it done in Columbus. 

I know of three iconic dates sealed into all of our minds: December 7, 1941; November 22, 1963, and September 11, 2001. The November date is unforgettable to those of us who lived through it. Everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.


An opera about President Kennedy could easily become a pastiche of Hyannisport, murder and Marilyn Monroe. JFK  is none of that. There have been enough TV mini-series already. Setting words to music gives the story of the last hours of President Kennedy's life -- a life no one knew was about to end- fantasy and poignancy.

The opera is set not in Dallas, but in Ft. Worth,  where President and Mrs. Kennedy had spent the of night November 21-2 at the Hotel Texas. There was a breakfast that morning, at which Jackie arrived "fashionably late",  leading the President to quip, "Nobody cares what Lyndon and I are wearing."

A crowd of 2,000 stood in the rain to see the Kennedys . JFK walked over and good naturedly worked the crowd, then left for the brief flight to Dallas.

I haven't heard any of the music to JFK. Composer Little's musical life began as a rock drummer. He has many riveting pieces for percussion. His previous opera Dog Days is making the rounds, complete with an electric score. I 've  heard some of the text and seen workshops on youtube.

Darren Keith Woods, the General Director of the Fort Worth Opera Festival told me, "David Little's music is beautiful. There's something of the 20th century and certainly something of the 21st. I wanted a big, grand opera. This has some set pieces, arias and choruses. I'm very aware that we have audience remembers who attended that breakfast in Fort Worth in 1963, and also many people for whom the Kennedy's are on film only.  " When asked about the idea of an opera about Kennedy's final hours in Fort Worth, Woods says, "It seemed like a great fit. The idea came about with some friends trying to come up with an idea. Everybody knows JFK died in Dallas. Who remembered he had spent the previous night in Fort Worth?" 

  JFK  muses on space travel and Nikita Khruschev. Henry and Clara Rathbone are a couple from history parallel to the Kennedys. Henry was present at Lincoln's assassination, and was badly cut by an escaping John Wilkes Booth. He later went insane and murdered Clara and their children. The Rathbones function as lady's maid and secret service agent . Lyndon Johnson and his cowboy buddies  are musically and dramatically 'down home.'  In the months leading up to November the Kennedys had suffered the death of their infant son Patrick, and Jackie was plagued by her husband's infidelities. JFK depicts a couple trying  to begin again, when every eye in the world was  on them.

Darren Woods and the Fort Worth Opera Festival have assembled a team in Little, Vavrek, and director Thaddeus Strassburger. Woods has led his audiences in Fort Worth to expect new work.  JFK may just be what we haven't had since Porgy and Bess: a quintessential American opera.