Night on Earth
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Night on Earth

Next month, Fort Worth Opera gives the world premiere of JFK, David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s exploration of the president’s final hours and the tragedy that continues to haunt us.
by John Rockwell. 

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Vice President Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedys at breakfast at Fort Worth’s Hotel Texas on the morning of November 22, 1963
© The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images
The dreamlike story of President Kennedy’s last night is embedded in a web of “fate and mortality.”
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President John Fitzgerald Kennedy
© Ullstein Bild/Getty Images
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© Popperfoto/Getty Images

INGENIOUS IN ITS CONCEPTION, tantalizing in its collaborators, potentially powerful and disturbing in its realization, Fort Worth Opera’s JFK, which has its first performance on April 23, promises to be the most anticipated premiere of the American opera season. Its composer, a self-described punk/metal drummer with a Princeton composition PhD, has become one of the country’s most critically acclaimed young opera composers.

JFK is no starry-eyed vision of Camelot. Instead, it freely reimagines the former president’s last night on earth, November 21 to 22, 1963—in Fort Worth—before he and Jackie departed the next morning for Dallas and its fateful cavalcade.

JFK has been described by its creators, composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek, as their “first grand opera,” although that hardly means it recalls Meyerbeer and nineteenth-century Parisian excess. On the other hand, compared with the fierce and thrilling electronic noise generated toward the apocalyptic end of their first big hit, Dog Days (2012)—or in Little’s instrumental Haunt of Last Nightfall, which sounds like the gamelan-inspired composer Lou Harrison meeting the archetypical heavy-metal band Metallica in some dark alley—JFK has a depth,  emotionalism and diversity of instrumental color that does indeed qualify it as a full-fledged opera, however grand. The detailed notation and sometimes exotic use of percussion—Little’s instrumental specialty—is particularly notable. The orchestra players may number only fifty-two, but the instruments total far more than that.

To judge from the conductor’s score and a recording of a full-orchestra run-through last August, the opera’s emotional range and depth owe everything to Little and Vavrek’s ever-more-evident artistic growth, the result of having worked closely together for eight years. But there have also been important creative contributions from a host of collaborators, among them Darren K. Woods, general director of the Fort Worth company, and his team; American Lyric Theater, which provided for an initial New York workshop; and Michael Cohen, Vavrek’s longtime dramaturge.

FOUR YEARS AGO,  Woods and his creative cadre, searching for a way to celebrate the company’s seventieth anniversary, came up with the idea of an opera based on the Kennedys’ night in Fort Worth. They sought out Little and Vavrek. The composer and librettist were then left to their own devices, although their earliest ideas were modified throughout the developmental process.

What freed their imaginations was the paucity of information about what actually happened during the Kennedys’ brief layover in Fort Worth. They had begun their day in San Antonio, had dinner in Houston and only arrived at the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth around 11:50 p.m. The next morning the president gave a speech at the hotel, then decamped for Dallas. What transpired between check-in and speech, nobody knows, so Vavrek and Little were free to invent. They did spend some preliminary time in Fort Worth, “having a communion with the ghosts of the town,” as Vavrek put it. But as he and Little wrote in the preface to the score, “This work departs as far from reality as the truth requires.”

LITTLE HAS SHOWN  political inclinations in his previous work. His Soldier Songs draws on reminiscences of veterans of five U.S. wars, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Haunt of Last Nightfall evokes
a massacre of villagers in 1981 in El Salvador by U.S.-trained government forces. But JFK is deliberately apolitical. The assassination is not shown, and there is no hint of the myriad conspiracy theories proliferating in its wake. The satirical treatment of Lyndon B. Johnson and his Texas cronies, with Coplandesque cowboy songs and rockabilly flair, might seem to hint at some complicity, but the creators deny that intention. Woods says Texas audiences at the workshop had no problems with the Johnson scene. “They kind of liked it,” he says. “They thought it was funny.”

Instead of politics and lurid drama, JFK follows the path of an earlier American opera of enormous historical resonance—John Adams, Alice Goodman and Peter Sellars’s Nixon in China. Not that Little’s mostly consonant, coloristically rich score is like Adams’s more minimalist style, but the recurrent dreams throughout JFK echo the dream sequences in Nixon.

The new opera offers a series of scenes welling up from the memories, fears and dreamy subconsciouses of Jackie and JFK (abetted by his morphine haze from the drugs he took for his aching back). Jack worries about his dead brother Joe and his beloved sister Rosemary, lobotomized and institutionalized; he and she meet on the moon’s Sea of Serenity, which looks very much like Hyannisport. The Red Army Chorus and Nikita Khrushchev, singing lustily in Russian, sashay through his brain. So do LBJ and Billie Sol Estes and John Connally and their entourage. As Jack lies in a soothing bath, he dreams that the raucous LBJ wants him to meet “Jumbo.” Jack stops him before he can take off his pants.

Despite Kennedy’s sadly ironic final aria, “A Lucky Man,” JFK seems at least as much Jackie’s opera as her husband’s. Certainly the more affecting moments revolve around her. She grieves for her lost children—one who died shortly after birth, another stillborn, a third a miscarriage. She worries about Jack’s infidelities. She even encounters her future self, Jackie O. The most tender music in the opera comes in a flashback to Jack and Jackie’s first meeting. Jackie emerges as a heroic figure: “We will do this, Jack,” she sings. “I commit myself again and again. We wear the mask of happiness.”

“Our first version was more biographical,” says Vavrek. “Michael Cohen helped us change our approach. We wanted to show how the art in the room informed their dreams.” Local collectors had lent some of their paintings for the presidential visit. Little and Vavrek were determined to show President Kennedy “not as a Christ-figure or martyr,” Little says in a note in the score. He adds, “We wanted to suggest that Fort Worth had been a good experience for JFK, the final moments of joy between him and Jackie.”

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An early rehearsal for JFK
Courtesy Fort Worth Opera

DESPITE THOSE MOMENTS, there is an undercurrent of tragedy. How could it be otherwise, given what we all know happened the next day? Events can have double meanings, tragic and sweet. The libretto is full of references to disguise: one scene is even subtitled “Mask, Shield, Armor, Crown,” an allusion to Camelot and to the Kennedys as America’s royalty. 

But the impact of JFK will depend on more than these plot points. The entire dreamlike story of President Kennedy’s last night is embedded in a web of what Little calls “fate and mortality.” There is so much ensemble and choral writing that the opera becomes almost an oratorio. There are three Grecian Fates (two present, one waiting in Dallas), backed by a Chorus of Fates, who sing and act in a manner similar to that of Wagner’s Norns, weaving the destiny of the world and watching fretfully as the skein threatens to break. Neither Little nor Vavrek denies that obvious parallel, and Little points out that the Metropolitan Opera canceled a scheduled performance of Götterdämmerung on November 22, 1963.

The two onstage Fates are played by the same singers who portray Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone, who were both at the Ford Theater when Lincoln was assassinated. Rathbone was stabbed trying to stop John Wilkes Booth as he escaped. In 1883, Rathbone tried to kill his children; Harris, protecting them, was shot dead, while Rathbone stabbed himself and was committed to an asylum for the criminally insane. (Vavrek didn’t make this up.) The same two hardworking singers also appear as a sympathetic Fort Worth hotel maid and a Secret Service agent. All this may seem needlessly complicated, even portentous on paper, but it may well work in practice.

A lot of its effectiveness in performance will depend on the stage production, which has been entrusted to Thaddeus Strassberger for both direction and design. Strassberger has contributed several striking stagings for Leon Botstein and the Bard Music Festival. He’ll have his work cut out for him here, trying to balance the public’s expectations of seeing iconic figures onstage with Little and Vavrek’s delicate balance of tragedy, daffiness, pain and grandiosity.

Like Little and Vavrek’s Dog Days, JFK promises to be a crowning achievement of the latest New York new-music scene, subsection Brooklyn. Little, Vavrek and their closest collaborators all seem to congregate in that borough. Vavrek is working on a second opera with the Brooklyn composer Missy Mazzoli, that one based on Lars von Trier’s film Breaking the Waves. Little has curated at National Sawdust, the new Brooklyn epicenter for classical/pop crossover hipness.

But for all their future projects, JFK is now—an opera about the past but also about our own immediate present. In the end, Little says, “JFK is about us. We look at these events, and we see our own demise—how we can have a great day and be gone the next.” spacer 

John Rockwell, a former music and arts critic for The New York Times and West Coast correspondent for opera news, currently reports from New York for Opera magazine. 

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