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A Conversation with Composer David T. Little: Humanizing the Kennedys in 'JFK' Opera

color photo of a banquet scene form the opera JFK by David T. Little and Royce Vavrek
Marty Sohl
Fort Worth Opera
A scene from the opera JFK by composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek

It would be difficult to name an individual who occupies a more exalted place in the American collective memory than John F. Kennedy. The former U.S. president has been idolized as an American war hero, a pedigreed New Englander, a dashing family man and an architect of progressive social ideals.

But instead of holding to this larger-than-life image of Kennedy, David T. Little and Royce Vavrek, composer and librettist, respectively, for their opera JFK, wanted to portray the human side of Jack and Jackie.

“We saw a lot of very real, human emotion – a lot of joy, a lot of pain – that I feel are things that we all shared with these otherwise unreachable individuals," Little said in a recent phone interview. "And so on a certain level, rather than keeping them up on a pedestal, we brought them down to the level of everyday people, while sort of refracting that against the pedestal on which they are inevitably viewed.”   

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Kennedy’s birth, The American Sound this week features selections from Fort Worth Opera’s 2016 world premiere performances of JFK, along with musical works associated with Kennedy and his time as president.

Please join me for this special Kennedy anniversary edition of The American Sound at 6 p.m. Saturday, May 27 and 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 30 on Classical 101.

color photo of David T. Little standing next to a painted brick wall
Credit Merri Cyr / davidtlittle.com
David T. Little, composer of the opera JFK

I spoke recently with Little about his and Vavrek’s concept for their humanizing portrayal of the Kennedys in JFK. Commissioned by Forth Worth Opera, American Lyric Theater and Opéra de Montréal, the opera sets the final 12 hours of Kennedy’s life leading up to – but not including – his tragic assassination, and was informed by countless hours of research into primary and secondary sources of historical information about the Kennedys.

Listen, above, to my conversation with Little to hear him talk about how he and Vavrek chose to portray what he describes as “the final moments of joy” in Jack and Jackie Kennedy’s life together, his take on the ever-evolving Kennedy legacy and the challenges of writing an opera to which everyone already knows the tragic ending.

Please join me for a special Kennedy anniversary edition of The American Sound at 6 p.m. Saturday, May 27 and 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 30 on Classical 101.

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Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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