Fort Worth — Camelot rode into Fort Worth when President and Mrs. Kennedy spent the night of Nov. 21, 1963, in room 850 of Hotel Texas at Eighth and Main streets in downtown (it's now a Hilton). Fort Worth is as proud of the historical significance of that night as Dallas is ashamed of the next day. In reality, both cities just happened to be on the presidential calendar and their order could easily have been reversed.
A new opera about that world-shaking hotel stay, JFK by composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek, opened on Saturday at Bass Hall. Like most new operas, JFK was commissioned by a consortium made up of the Fort Worth Opera, together with Opéra de Montréal and New York's American Lyric Theater. This performance also marked the opening night of the entire Fort Worth Opera Festival.
In one way, the evening pointed up the difference between the two cities. Opening night in Dallas is a glittering affair with jewel-encrusted ladies in designer evening gowns and a surprising number of gentlemen in tuxedos. Flocks of press photographers flit around ferreting out the famous. On Saturday in Fort Worth, even though the city has its own supply of glitterati, such fancy duds were the exception among many more casually clad ticket holders. But one thing both cities share on such premiere occasions is the electric sense of excited anticipation in the lobby.
That anticipation was tinged with apprehension on Saturday night. Last season, Dog Days, an opera by the same creative team of Little and Vavrek, was so unrelentingly grim and musically harsh that it was hard to watch and difficult to hear. This might be one reason that Bass Hall had more empty seats than you would expect for such a trifecta: a world premiere opera about such a beloved president and a historic connection to Cowtown. Now that the word is out about the opera’s unabashedly romantic musical language, seats may fill up.
Although the music in JFK brims with lush tonality, the plot is anything but traditional. The first act appears to be a drug-addled nightmare and the second act is a morning-after crash. You don’t have to have done hard drugs to have experienced a high-flying Friday night, even if just on coffee, with Saturday’s depressing and hungover price to pay.
The first act is set on a turntable reproduction of a hotel suite. JFK is in the bathtub, where he remains for most of the act. Little and Vavrek gives us a front row seat to the First Couple’s morphine-induced bad trip, reliving key life-changing disasters and drowning in the depths of despair. The drug was liberally prescribed for JFK’s back, injured in World War II. We see Jackie inject Jack with a whopping dose and than give her a taste, injected in her thigh. JFK moans in pleasure and what follows is a surrealistic experience that unfolds like a Fellini film roll.
The dead return to torment, past errors loom large and the still living appear in unflattering, to say the least, wildly exaggerated caricatures. Director and scenic designer Thaddeus Strassberger, costumer Mattie Ullrich and lighting director Chad R. Jung revel in the dual assignment of depicting an opera based in both reality and hallucinogenic dreams. These are supposedly suggested by famous paintings and sculptures that were brought to the hotel for the Kennedys from various private collections and museums; some are seen in the scenic design, but never mentioned.
The plot of JFK borrows its flawed hero and his stalwart wife from Greek Tragedy. They also adopt the device of a commenting Greek chorus (impressively prepared by Stephen Dubberly). The Texas Boys Choir also appears in matching red blazers. In a further borrowing, this time from the Norns in Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungen, two characters hover around representing The Fates. They are incarnated here as a hotel maid, played by soprano Talise Trevigne, and a Secret Service agent, tenor Sean Panikkar. Both are excellent vocally and dramatically as they are ever-present yet barely noticed.
A far cry from the hale and hearty public persona, resonant baritone Matthew Worth’s JFK is a pill-popping physical wreck and wracked with insecurity. He doesn’t look much like the dashing president in our memories (matching Jack’s hair color would help) but, since the public never was allowed to see the “man behind the curtain,” it is impossible to judge the accuracy of his bland portrayal.
Jackie was much more of an open book to us, mostly because of her crass afterlife, so cruelly lit by the harsh public glare, than the elegant French-speaking, coutured and coiffed Guinevere. Daniela Mack gives a believable performance as Jackie; uncomfortable with a life lived in the public eye, tortured by Jack’s infidelities and distraught by the death of two of her children. However, hearing Mack’s deep mezzo-soprano voice coming out of Jackie’s mouth is a surprise. The real Jackie’s voice was a soft-spoken near-whisper.
The nightmare unfolds in a series of dragged-up memories and fantastical imaginary events. First up is a visit by Rosie, Jack’s sister. She pops out of the shower in a flouncy green party dress and immediately demonstrates the erratic and dangerously hostile behavior that eventually earned her a disastrous lobotomy. Soprano Cree Carrico is wonderful—a manic energy in green ruffles bouncing off the walls. The two siblings relive Jack’s memory of a time she begged him to take her to a party. She becomes more and more aggressive until he gives her a shove, causing her to fall on the floor. His frustration with her immediately turns to guilt. Later, we see Jack’s memory of an encounter with a vacant Rosie at the nursing home where she was stored.
Lyndon B. Johnson stars in the next mental vision. This is not the real Texan, but is a refection of how the president might have seen him. The “Texan” characterization is so over-the-top that it leaves “offensive” in the dust, runs right past “insulting” and rejoices in “vulgar.” (LBJ offers to drop trou and introduce JFK to “jumbo,” which he thankfully refuses.) As gleefully portrayed by Daniel Okulitch, LBJ explodes on the stage as a rhinestone cowboy in a sparkly male stripper’s version of Texas attire, complete with Velcro-enabled pull-off pants—to let jumbo roam free, supposedly.
This LBJ travels with a backup chorus of identically attired cronies, identified in the program as familiar Texas politicos: Ralph Yarborough, John Connally, Raymond E. Buck, Jim Wright and the only one whose name we hear, Billie Sol Estes. They sing an exaggerated Western ditty (“Gotta Git Ya Saddled Up”) and all proceed to strip to the waist and jump in the tub with JFK (remember that he is in the bathtub for the entire act). The satire even has a dollop of simulated S&M and, of course, the ever-present hooker.
Since this is JFK’s nightmare, Nikita Khrushchev also makes an appearance. The Communist dictator was a living caricature by himself so there in’t much exaggeration needed for him to be a malevolent presence in JFK’s dream. A red-faced Casey Finnigan screams out his lines at the top of his lungs set in the extremes of his vocal range. He also has a backup chorus of jackbooted young men holding a huge hammer and sickle.
The second act is made up of introspective musical ruminations on life and the rendezvous with fate that we all face. Two quotes come to mind: Henry David Thoreau’s depressingly right-on “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them”; and from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado: “See how the Fates their gifts allot / For A is happy, B is not / Yet B is worthy, I dare say / Of more prosperity than A.”
In case this review reads more negatively than intended, because of the necessity to describe the bizarre plot, let me state categorically that JFK is a fine opera; well-crafted and musically astute. This is a first-class production; sympathetically directed and visually stunning. All of the singers are excellent, look vaguely like the people they represent, and have finely honed acting chops.
Like all new operas, JFK is desperately in need of a red pencil; it is way too long. But to its credit, it would benefit from a thousand small cuts rather than major amputations. The music is, happily, set in a neo-tonal language, peppered with the remnants of 20th century modernism sprinkled around like an adult’s few saved mementos from a wild childhood. Much of the score depends on minimalism and a brilliant orchestration, which is superbly played by the Fort Worth Symphony under the precise baton of Steven Osgood).
Harmonically, the opera comes from the stoic Teutonic lineage of Wagner and Richard Strauss rather than Puccini’s teary emotionalism.
However, like a common complaint that is also lodged against Puccini, the libretto is set in a long unending series of arching melodies. As one wag said: “Pass the salt” becomes an emotionally draining outburst.
There isn’t any ordinary conversation. Even the most trivial line gets the full-on Straussian treatment. This means that the truly beautiful and emotionally involving passages do not stand out in the musical texture from ordinary day-to-day conversation. There is gorgeous, gorgeous-er and gorgeous-est.
This is not a complaint, mind you. Given a choice, I will gladly take the language of JFK over the musical assault of Dog Days any day. But sometimes, as in the Rosenkavalier-esque trio at the end, you belatedly realize that something special started a few minutes earlier.
It will be fascinating to see how JFK will be received in Montreal.