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Classical 101

JFK: A New Opera in Ft. Worth

Fort Worth Opera
JFK, a new opera by David T. Little and Royce Vavrek

President John F. Kennedy spent the last night of his life in the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, from where he left for Dallas after an early morning walk about in the rain and a breakfast in the hotel banquet rooms, where his final quip was, when Mrs. Kennedy arrived late, "Nobody cares what Lyndon and I are wearing." 

These twelve hours in Ft. Worth are the subject of a new opera JFK, written for the 70th anniversary of the Ft. Worth Opera. What could have been a travelogue with a tragic ending, or a giddy sudser ripped from ancient pages of the National Enquirer was made into a deeply moving evening of musical theater.


It was eerie being the audience where everyone knows what's going to happen, but nobody on stage does. None of the singers could be old enough to remember the Kennedy presidency. Many of us in the audience, but by no means all, did. Who is JFK to the generations born after his death? A murdered president? A horn dog? Irrelevant?

One leading citric opined, "I didn't like it much. Maybe you will."

I did. No doubt there'll be some tightening in future performances. I was immediately struck by the beauty of David  T. Little's choral writing, and how closely the music was welded to Royce Vavrek's words.   I hope there'll be a large scale mass or oratorio in Little's future. JFK does not ignore what we've learned about Kennedy's philandering and emotional  unavailability.

We meet the couple not long after the death of their infant son Patrick, with one of the libretto's most moving lines, "A wound where joy should have been."

David T. Little's music is not a simple song speech. There's a great deal of activity in the orchestral underpinnings. The musical writing compels the action forward. And Little is not afraid to give us a bona fide love duet on the shore at Hyannisport. He isn't writing love music here. He's writing an exploration of two people wondering if they could fall in love. 

I didn't think much about a long scene between the President, luxuriating in hotel bathtub, hoping to ease his painful back, as he imagines his sister Rosemary, rendered helpless by a lobotomy twenty years earlier. Rosemary seemed cruelly presented, but it was pointed out to me that this was one of the few times Kennedy showed empathy.  Indeed he did, singing "A brother lost to war/A sister to the doctors."
We have a good ol' boy scene with LBJ and his cronies visiting the President in that bathtub-where he seemed to be wrapped in mylar from the balcony-Vice President Johnson deriding these Harvard boys from the East and inviting all to meet 'Jumbo".  I wondered if the Texas audience would recoil at this, but a good time was had by all. 

The triple depictions between fates, Civil war era people and 1963 Secret Service and hotel maids was a bit lost on me. No fault of the singing of Sean Pannikar and Talise Trevigne. I would have loved to have heard more from such fine voices.  I know Daniel Okulitch (LBJ) primarily as an art song singer, it was great to see him grab LBJ and never let go. Daniela Mack had the most completely written work as Jacqueline Kennedy. By late 1963, after ten rocky years of marriage, this Jackie deeply loved her husband, and worked to connect with him. The duet between the young Mrs Kennedy and Jacqueline Onassis, was the most moving part of the score to me, and featured a coup de theater with the pink suit.

Matthew Worth sang like a dream, the state of JFK during much of the opera. Kennedy does burst into song at the end, while dressing to speak at that Ft. Worth breakfast before the plane to Dallas. "I'm a lucky guy!' Worth seemed too young to be convincing as President Kennedy. I felt the role itself was underwritten. Perhaps the aforementioned 'work' in re establishing this marriage would have made his character more interesting. Yet this could have ben deliberate, the point being that when confronted by raw emotion, the Kennedys were at a loss.

If I didn't leave the theater humming the tunes, that's more a function of age-mine-than a failing of the composer's. There are tunes a plenty. So much of JFK works, especially for those of us, albeit just barely, able to remember that week in November, 1963.

 JFK libretto by Royce Vavrek, music by David T. Litttle, produced by The Fort Worth Opera at Bass Hall, Ft. Worth, seen May 7 with Matthew Worth (JFK) Daniela Mack (Jacqueline Kennedy) Katharine Goeldner (Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) Daniel Okulitch (LBJ) Sean Pannikar (Henry Rathbone) Casey Finnigan (Nikita Kruschev) Talise Trevigne (Clara Harris) Steven Osgood conducted the Ft. Worth Symphony. Production by Thaddeus Srassburger.