In Undelivered, a dramatic cantata inspired by a speech that John F. Kennedy never got to make, the president’s words are performed by mezzo-soprano Virginia Dupuy.
That might strike some audience members as an unusual choice when the work is unveiled this week in North Texas. But there’s a reason for the gender switch, says composer Gregory Sullivan Isaacs, who collaborated with librettist Suzanne Calvin on the work, which was commissioned by the Hall Ensemble of Fort Worth.
The “Undelivered” speech is the one that Kennedy was going to make at the Dallas Trade Mart on Nov. 22, 1963. While en route to this address, he was assassinated.
“It’s a beautiful speech,” Isaacs says. “A lot of the issues he was planning to discuss 50 years ago are still relevant today. You could give this speech — or a lot of it anyway, maybe not the part about the Cold War and Polaris subs, which we don’t deal with — on the floor of the Senate today.
“What’s especially beautiful about it is that it’s plain talk, the kind we don’t seem to get from our leaders anymore.”
Isaacs and Calvin want to focus on the words Kennedy was going to use and the ideas he was going to express. In this speech, he would have laid out his vision of where he wanted to lead the country.
Isaacs and Calvin say they didn’t want the assassination, and all of the baggage that goes with that tragedy, to overwhelm that message.
“So we don’t say anything about the assassination,” says Isaacs, who also reviews classical music for various publications, including, occasionally, for the Star-Telegram. “And we decided to take the Kennedy words and give them to a female, so that we were separating them from the person, which means we wouldn’t have to cast somebody who looked like Kennedy or who did an accent or anything like that.
“It’s all about pure thoughts. That’s why I decided to write it for mezzo.”
Dupuy, an internationally known singer who’s on the faculty at Southern Methodist University, was Isaacs’ first choice as the mezzo delivering Kennedy’s speech.
There are two other singers, a soprano and a baritone, who perform other commentary texts and function as a Greek chorus.
The soloists are accompanied by a six-instrument ensemble (string quartet, bassoon and horn).
“We had our first rehearsal [on May 2] and it really sounds like an orchestra,” Isaacs says. “Of course, we have the best players in town, including Gary Levinson [artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth and associate concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra] on first violin.
“I’m so honored that they would do it. Their involvement means it’s going to be a good performance.”
Calvin, who handles public relations for the Dallas Opera, had the idea for Undelivered nearly two years ago. She wove in additional texts that comment on or explore ideas expressed in the speech. These include quotes from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage by Lord Byron, a speech by Daniel Webster and an original poem about a riderless black horse.
“The riderless horse is one of those indelible images [symbolizing a fallen leader or soldier],” Isaacs says. “We decided to use that to re-create the sense of shock we all felt when we first heard about the assassination.”
Musically, Isaacs set out to compose something that had a “neo-romantic kind of voice. It’s very tonal and very rich and rush-sounding, because that was the era,” he says.
Isaacs has high hopes for Undelivered after it premieres in North Texas.
“There are a lot of concert series of chamber music all over the country,” he says. “So we’re hoping it gets a lot of performances for a long time to come.”