John and Jaqueline Kennedy are iconic popular figures in American history–not only did they represent a renewed hope in a post World War II society, but they were the central figures of a major American tragedy. The new opera JFK by David T. Little with libretto by Royce Vavrek does well to not focus exclusively on the assassination of America’s 35th president, but it does help to set the backdrop against which this complex story is set. The opera premiered on April 23, 2016 to a packed house at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, TX, the city in which the opera is set. Fort Worth Opera was the main opera company that commissioned the work four years ago.
Daniela Mack shines as Jackie Kennedy and seizes full sympathy from the audience. Her beautiful mezzo soprano voice is clear and full of melancholy. At the beginning of the show, she conveys a deep struggle to be both supportive of her husband’s political ambitions and care for his physical ailments, but also to let herself grieve for the death of their fourth child, Patrick. By the end of the first act, she comes back to steal the show singing “Rise to Face the Day.” Matthew Worth also commands his role as John Kennedy. The majority of the first act follows JFK into his dreamworld exploring his hopes, memories, and fears. Worth’s baritone voice sings through each new moment with a strong, full tone while keeping a face full of sincere facial expressions.
Kennedy’s dreamworld is where the audience is introduced to his sister Rosemary–delicately played by Cree Carrico–whose failed prefrontal lobotomy left her incapacitated for the rest of her life. Lyndon Johnson, played by Daniel Okulitch, also enters the stage in a larger-than-Texas fashion representing Kennedy’s political pressures and fears. Okulitch is outstanding at representing Kennedy’s personal and political temptations while not making a mockery out of Johnson. The slight Texas accent he uses while still singing with great technique is quite impressive, too.
Talise Trevigne and Sean Panikkar beautifully play some of the most complex characters in the opera as their characters work on three different levels. They are unveiled first as the Greek fates Clotho (the spinner of life’s threads) and Lacheis (the allotter, determining the thread’s length) with the third fate Atropos (the cutter of the thread) waiting in Dallas. Second, they play Clara Harris and Major Henry Rathbone, a married couple present during the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, with the Major being the man that tried to stop John Wilkes Booth. Last, the couple plays a hotel maid, or Abigail to the First Lady, and a Secret Service Agent protecting the president. This third layer creates the most complexity as the characters help to comfort the president and first lady, yet they still act as the fates pushing the couple to that fateful day in Dallas.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the production is the set. Huge green letters spelling TEXAS sit at the front of the stage to help to start the prologue and set an eerie light that accompanies the dreadful music played by the orchestra. Though, the majority of the opera is put on a large rotating box that is a separate stage unto itself. It displays the different sections of the large hotel room of the president and first lady which makes scene changes quick and helps to propel the momentum of the story forward.
At the heart of the opera is a strong score and thoughtfully-projected libretto. David T. Little’s music serves the drama well without overshadowing the story. There is a level of foreshadowing that comes out more in the orchestration than any certain theme or motive. The scenes with the chorus don’t feel forced either, but rather natural elements of the music that accent parts of the story. The balance between the orchestra and singers rarely fights for dominance, and the numerous sustained notes give the singers an added challenge on stage. Royce Vavrek’s libretto helps to not only layout the progression of the story, but also to inform the audience of the past events that help setup the psyche of the characters. It is a dive into the emotional mind of the presidential couple rather than just certain events through time.
Overall, the work is a beautiful example of what is possible in modern opera. Every detail of this work was beautifully crafted and performed, and the audience responded enthusiastically. It is evident with two other new operas being performed at the Fort Worth Opera Festival this year that Fort Worth audiences are excited about new works, and more new operas will be coming to Bass Hall.