‘JFK’ in Ft. Worth: An Opera As Big, Brash As Texas

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Henry Rathbone (tenor Sean Panikkar), who witnessed Lincoln's assassination, appears in John and Jacqueline Kennedy's Fort Worth hotel room. (Marty Sohl)
In ‘JFK,’ Henry Rathbone (Sean Panikkar), who witnessed Lincoln’s assassination, appears in a vision to warn the president.
(Marty Sohl/Fort Worth Opera Festiva)
By James L. Paulk

FORT WORTH — “There are no faint hearts in Fort Worth.” That phrase was uttered by President John F. Kennedy at a Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce breakfast the morning of his assassination after he spent the night at a hotel here and just before departing for Dallas. And whatever might be said of David T. Little’s JFK, commissioned by Fort Worth Opera as part of its 70th anniversary celebration, it is anything but a fainthearted effort.

Matthew Worth portrays President Kennedy. (Karen Almond)
Baritone Matthew Worth plays President Kennedy. (Karen Almond)

The opera, with a libretto by Royce Vavrek, builds from this mostly forgotten historical footnote, spinning the stopover into a sprawling surreal fantasy. And though the concept might resemble John Adams’ Nixon in China, also based on a presidential visit, this work is much less literal and brings to mind the more abstract operas of Philip Glass, like Einstein on the Beach, which the JFK score sometimes echoes.

The opera, which received its premiere on April 23, with additional performances planned for May 1 and May 7, was co-commissioned by Opéra de Montréal, which plans to present it in 2018, according to a a Twitter post by Canada music critic Lev Bratishenko, although there has been no official announcement. The other co-commissioner is the American Lyric Theater, which presented a workshop of it in 2013, but that organization is a “development co-commissioner,” with no plans for a production.

Hints of Benjamin Britten likewise resonate in the music. Then there are passages when the score wanders out of tonality, effectively signaling the impending catastrophe. But the longest and most moving stretches of the work come when it seems to channel Hollywood, especially the war-story scores of Michael Kamen (Band of Brothers) and Hans Zimmer: stoic, elegiac, brass-heavy, and punctuated with percussion (Little is a percussionist). It conjures a brooding, reflective, darkly nostalgic mood.

That said, the most memorable, daring, and potentially damning feature of JFK is its insistence on mixing history and classic tragedy with trashy reality television. The opera is structured as a series of vignettes, with two “fates,” who play multiple parts and who bolster the opera’s Greek tragedy conceit. (The requisite third fate apparently awaits Kennedy in Dallas; the opera ends before the assassination.)

Lyndon B. Johnson (Daniel Okulitch) and his Texas pals visit Kennedy in a dream.
LBJ (Daniel Okulitch) and Texas pals visit JFK in a dream. (Karen Almond)

Patrons who failed to read a program insert might be puzzled by these added characters. They would surely be baffled by the ghosts of previous presidential assassins who wander portentously across the stage. While the concept for these extra layers is bold, the effect is to add to the confusion on the stage. Still, they provide an opportunity for some of the most dissonant and striking music.

Much of the opera consists of Kennedy’s nightmarish dreams, presumably induced by the morphine he takes for his back pain. In these flashbacks, Kennedy sees his sister Rosemary before and after her lobotomy; has a shouted confrontation with Nikita Khrushchev (backed up by the Red Army Chorus); and is visited, while in the tub, by Lyndon Johnson and a pack of Texas cronies (including Congressman Jim Wright and Governor John Connally). Johnson threatens to introduce Kennedy to “Jumbo,” his penis, and tries to get him in bed with a prostitute he’s brought along.

Daniela Mack portrays Jacqueline Kennedy. (Karen Almond)
Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, as Jacqueline Kennedy. (Almond)

Of course this scene brings to mind the recent vulgar language and crude genital references from the Republican primary candidates just as an earlier scene, where Jackie injects Jack with his morphine, has an odd resonance at a time when the singer Prince apparently died in the aftermath of an overdose of pain medication. Perhaps JFK, with its descent into schlock and vulgarity, accidentally reflects our own era more than that of Camelot.

One problem inherent in operas based on recent historical figures is that the audience has a distinct memory of how that person sounds. For President Kennedy, that voice was high-pitched, with a distinct Brahmin Boston accent. Matthew Worth, who sang the title role, is a baritone and made no effort to replicate the accent. This oddity surfaced most acutely during his character’s parlando digressions, and mattered less when he sang. Still, Worth looked and acted plausibly, and his sturdy lyric voice was ultimately persuasive.

Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack sang the demanding role of Jackie with a dark-hued, tremulous voice. Displaying great stage presence, she provided a complex, sympathetic portrayal of a woman overwhelmed by the loss of two children and obsessed by her concerns for Kennedy. Jackie’s “Midnight is the loneliest hour” is the opera’s best aria, and Mack made it a showstopper.

Rathbone (Sean Panikkar) and Clara Harris (Talise Trevigne) serenade JFK and Jackie. (Karen Almond)
The Fates: Rathbone and Clara Harris (Talise Trevigne). (Almond)

Other standouts in the large cast included soprano Talise Trevigne and tenor Sean Panikkar as Fates and Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch as a swaggering Lyndon Johnson. Mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner sang admirably as an older version of Jackie (by now Onassis), who counsels the younger woman.

Conductor Steven Osgood and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra gave a stellar performance of a work whose sweeping orchestral score often carried the drama more than did the singers. Little’s vocal line consists mostly of arioso and though there are set pieces, few are memorable.

A boy choir provided an effective recurring foil, singing a darkened, dissonant version of “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You” at various moments in the opera. The adult chorus filled multiple roles effectively.

Thaddeus Strassberger’s handsome production used a simple, rotating hotel suite and a dais for the final scene. A striking, stage-size “TEXAS” neon sign arrived ominously during the brief overture and returned at the end.

Said to cost $1.3 million, this ambitious, convoluted opera is as big as Texas. Its flaws are similarly epic. But it makes for a riveting night in the theater and stands as an original work of art.

James L. Paulk is a freelance critic who has written regularly for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (Casey Finnigan) appears in one of President Kennedy's dreams, in the new opera by David T. Little and Royce Vavrek. (Karen Almond)
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (Casey Finnigan) appears in one of President Kennedy’s dreams. (Almond)