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Fort Worth Opera

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Thaddeus Strassberger's production of David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s opera JFK at Fort Worth Opera
Photo by Marty Sohl
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Matthew Worth and Daniela Mack as John and Jackie Kennedy
Photo by Karen Almond
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Daniel Okulitch as LBJ
Photo by Karen Almond

IMAGINE IF CAMELOT OPENED with Arthur and Guinevere half-naked and high, and you’d have a sense of David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s ravishing grand opera, JFK, whose world premiere opened Fort Worth’s seventieth-anniversary season on April 23 at Bass Hall—a few blocks away from the city’s memorial to the murdered president, who spent his last night in the hotel across the street. It’s well into Act II before we see Kennedy and Mrs. Kennedy wearing their familiar public faces (and outfits); in lieu, we get an intimate and inventive portrait of their vulnerable private selves.

Set in the first couple’s Hotel Texas room just hours before the assassination, the opera begins with the president in the bathtub, evoking David’s Marat; he asks for a shot of morphine, for his debilitating back pain, which Jackie gives him before taking a few cc’s for herself. The two then float through drug-induced hallucinations, into the past and onto the moon, through important moments, meeting the people, unstuck in time, that haunt them—Rosemary Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev, Lyndon Johnson, Jackie Onassis. The realistic, rotating hotel set, designed by the director, Thaddeus Strassberger, is framed by rows and columns of neon lights, signaling that though this work is grounded in history, it’s also oneiric, fact filtered through its creators’ let-loose imaginations.

Strassberger’s production was impressively clear—to a point. The opera’s only dramaturgical overreach was the inclusion of two characters, Jackie’s attendant and a secret service agent, who are also Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone, President Lincoln’s guests at Ford’s Theatre. (Later, Henry suffered mental illness, murdered Clara, attacked their children and tried to kill himself.) In the program, they’re classified as “The Fates,” and they comment on the action with bitter foresight and hindsight, which was sometimes moving but more often confusing—especially, I presume, if you hadn’t read a bit about the opera beforehand.

Still, that’s a minor cavil about what was a triumphant work, especially for admirers of Little and Vavrek, their previous collaborations—Dog Days and Am I Born and more. Little’s score is unafraid to be frankly beautiful or dissonant, sarcastic or full of real feeling, employing myriad forms and styles available to opera composers today. It uses a full orchestra, a chorus and a boys choir; the production also features more than a dozen dancers and supers. It’s a bold work—in scope, forces, ambition, tone and presentation. Steven Osgood lucidly conducted the exceptional Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, and much of the cast was just as excellent. 

In appearance and voice, Matthew Worth, as JFK, has the All-American charisma and power you expect from a twentieth-century president, but he can muss it up, too, and show affecting helplessness. Daniel Okulitch was hilarious as a lascivious LBJ who needs to be ordered sternly to keep his pants on, lest he introduce the room to “Jumbo”; dressed in an outlandish white Western suit with sparkling red and blue stars (designed by Mattie Ullrich), Okulitch sang Johnson’s Coplandesque prairie songs with matte tone and a little twang; one, about a horse, he sings to a sex worker wearing lacy black lingerie.

Cree Carrico, as Rosemary Kennedy, John’s lobotomized, institutionalized and forgotten sibling, sang unglamorously, almost shrilly, but it was effective for the manic character; post-operation, when John visits her in an asylum, she was eerily mute and zombie-faced. Talise Trevigne, as Clara, was sweet-voiced or fierce, as the moment called for, and Sean Panikkar, as Henry, attacked his music with gusto. His performance stood out, tremendous in feeling and ferocity, especially in Act II, when Little and Vavrek pause the dramatic urgency to give each role a musical showcase.

The greatest of these went to Jackie, sung by the devastating and magnificent Daniela Mack, the evening’s MVP. She has a voice like polished onyx: strong, dark, deep and gleaming. She stripped the first lady of her typical grace and glamour, wearing just a slip, sticking a needle in her leg; she was anxious, exhausted and melancholy. Her moving duet with her older self (a stunningly costumed Katharine Goeldner)—which becomes a trio, with Clara—includes Vavrek’s most piercing dialogue: Mrs. Kennedy, on the morning of November 22, 1963, asking Mrs. Onassis if her husband will love her everyday for the rest of his life.

It’s a callback to the opera’s poignant moment, in Act I, when John Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier first meet. The scene is so sweetly composed—both text and score, Vavrek and Little at their most symbiotic—that I almost choked on my tears, and I could hear from the sniffling around me that I wasn’t the only one. It stopped the show. At root, JFK isn’t history or even biography—it’s a love story, a very sad one about growing old but not getting to grow old enough. Jackie is its tragic center, its gravitational force—its star. —Henry Stewart 

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