By Diane Windeler
SAN MARCOS, Tex. — On Nov. 22, 1963, just 99 minutes after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, an emergency swearing-in ceremony was held on Air Force One. The iconic photograph shows Lyndon B. Johnson taking the oath, flanked by Lady Bird Johnson and Jacqueline Kennedy.
That scene is brought to life as it unveils Lady Bird: First Lady of the Land, a one-act opera by composer Henry Mollicone and librettist Sheldon Harnick, which received its premiered in the new Patti Strickel Harrison Theatre of Texas State University (LBJ’s alma mater, then called Southwest Texas State Teacher’s College) April 28-May 1.
“President of the United States. That’s what he always wanted,” Lady Bird muses in a graceful aria, “but not this way. Dear God, not this way!” At that point, there is a flashback to 1934 and her first meeting with boastful young congressional aide LBJ at the Driskill Hotel in Austin. We hear their conversation, but we also hear the 1963 Lady Bird’s interjections as she “observes” the couple in her mind’s eye. A lilting waltz underscores her telling him the origin of her nickname — she was born Claudia Taylor, but a nursemaid declared her as “purdy as a lady bird” — while a march-like theme accompanies his insistence that politics is in his blood and he will be a congressman someday, and even President.
It’s an ideal means of introducing Mollicone’s delightfully variegated score, a mélange of styles that blur boundaries among classical, jazz, and musical theater. The vocal writing is tuneful, the orchestrations vivid, often harmonically piquant. Another of his scores, Children of the Sun, about the Virgin of Guadalupe, had its premiere in 2013 by Texas State Opera at Austin’s McCallum Fine Arts Academy.
Harnick’s libretto is equally expressive, filled with wit and provocative imagery. This was the second collaboration between the pair, the first being Coyote Tales in 1998 for Kansas City Lyric Opera. Mollicone is best known for The Face on the Barroom Floor, which was written in 1978 for Central City Opera and continues to run each summer. Harnick is, of course, the Pulitzer and Tony award-winning lyricist of such Broadway musicals as Fiorello!, She Loves Me, and Fiddler on the Roof, the last two of which have been nominated for 2016 Tony awards in the Best Revival of a Musical category.
In a phone interview, the pair revealed that they were captivated by Lady Bird’s biography, but budgetary constraints limited the opera’s length. So, they chose to focus on Lady Bird’s whistle-stop campaign tour — evoked through motoric rhythms and woodwind shrieks — through the South a few weeks prior to LBJ’s election in November 1964. About 40 percent of the piece involves that fateful four-day journey, when the rather shy First Lady faced throngs of angry Southerners who could not accept the just-passed Civil Rights Act.
At one point, an FBI agent tried to convince her to stop because of a bomb threat, but she insisted on continuing. It was a triumphant exercise in gentle persuasion as a fellow Southerner shared stories of loving grits or crawfish pie, interspersed with quotes about equality from the Declaration of Independence and the Pledge of Allegiance.
In the opera, the latter is set to an especially rich, moving choral ensemble that deserves to be published separately for school choirs.
The characters include young and older Johnsons, daughters Lynda Bird and Luci Baines, and various politicians, picketers, rednecks, etc. Most were double-cast, and all the roles were sung by students. The young singers seen opening night were well trained and promising, both musically and dramatically.
The set consisted of simple, easy-to-move furnishings (plus the back of a bigoted redneck’s pickup truck) and a series of floor-to ceiling drops on either side of a rear screen. Projections, including newspaper headlines and a still from the Zapruder film showing Jackie crawling atop the fated limo, advanced the action or provided time references. An onstage gospel chorus sang in front of images from the 1963 march on Birmingham and rallies led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Throughout, there was impressive choral work, courtesy of coach and chorus master Kristin Roach, which did justice to Mollicone’s vibrant scoring. The finale is an eloquent, multi-voice anthem with Lady Bird’s soaring solo mirrored by choristers singing about how they will wage a war on poverty, create a great society, and beautify the land. Politics aside, it was irresistible, especially with the final drop depicting the real Lady Bird in a vast field of bluebonnets.
The opera was efficiently staged by Samuel Mungo, the university’s director of opera studies, who kept a taut pace with swift scene changes, logical blocking, and effective lighting. The responsive, nicely balanced 29-piece Texas State Symphony Orchestra was led by Australian Carolyn Watson, who became the ensemble’s director last fall.
There is talk of additional performances next season. It appears that Lady Bird has legs. May they find many venues.
Diane Windeler is an independent San Antonio-based writer who was classical music critic for the San Antonio Light for 11 years before its demise in 1993. Later, she covered music and theater for 13 years as a freelancer for the San Antonio Express-News. She now contributes to the website incidentlight.com.