Darren K. Woods knew he needed something special to mark 2016 but wasn’t sure what.
The season was 4 1/2 years away, but the general director of the Fort Worth Opera had to find a way to celebrate the company’s 70th anniversary as well as the 10th anniversary of the consolidation of the season into the four-week Fort Worth Opera Festival. He was at a loss for what commissioned work might be appropriate.
Someone suggested an opera about Abraham Lincoln. But ol’ Rail Splitter wasn’t going to cut it.
“I said I wanted it to be a Fort Worth story, but it can’t just be a Fort Worth story because it will never get done again. I wanted a Fort Worth story that had national, international and 100-years-from-now implications,” Woods said on a recent sunny afternoon outside the opera’s rehearsal studio. “That’s a tall order.”
Wildcatting was kicked around as an idea, but then producing director Kurt Howard came up with something else. He said he thought John F. Kennedy had spent his last night in Fort Worth before crossing paths with death in Dallas on the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963.
At first, Woods scoffed.
“I said everybody would know that if that were true,” he recalled with a laugh. “We went to Google — and it was true.”
And so was born JFK, subtitled on Fort Worth Opera’s website “The Hopeful Night Before That Fateful Day,” a contemporary and fantastical opera about John and Jacqueline’s stay at the Hotel Texas in downtown Fort Worth.
Opera News has already heralded it as “the most anticipated premiere of the American opera season.”
The world debut of JFK kicks off this year’s Opera Festival on April 23 with the first of three performances.
It will be followed by Buried Alive/Embedded (two one-act operas based on what Edgar Allan Poe might have written if he were alive in the 21st century), the old warhorse The Barber of Seville, and Frontiers, a showcase of snippets of eight works in development.
From the outside, the $1.3 million JFK — a co-commission with American Lyric Theater and Opéra de Montréal, who are picking up some of the tab — might seem like a giant, risky step for a regional opera company coming out of the recession.
With music by David T. Little and a libretto from Royce Vavrek — the young team that wrote the amplified, post-apocalyptic Dog Days, which Fort Worth Opera staged in 2015 and which The Wall Street Journal likened to “a punch in the stomach” — JFK won’t be confused with La bohème.
Star-Telegram critic Olin Chism wrote in his review of Dog Days that he was “so repelled by the opera that halfway through, I had stopped caring what happened to the characters. …” Other Fort Worth audience members walked out.
But, says Woods, that’s the point.
Fort Worth Opera has built a reputation for clambering out on an artistic limb. That’s just one reason why representatives from New York’s Metropolitan Opera and L.A. Opera as well as opera companies in Houston; Washington, D.C.; Kansas City; and Milwaukee will be winging in to catch the premiere. Writers from the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Toronto Star, The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe will be covering it.
In prior years, the company has staged such contemporary and timely operas as Dead Man Walking (about the death penalty), Before Night Falls (about a Cuban man’s escape to the U.S. during the Mariel boatlift of the ’80s) and Hydrogen Jukebox (based on the beat poetry of Allen Ginsberg).
Woods is certainly not alone in trying to create something outside the opera box. Critic Alex Ross, writing this month in The New Yorker, even talks of “opera startups” — small, boutique companies with names like Heartbeat Opera and Opera Noire — that offer something beyond the staid world of operatic stereotype.
“People expect the unexpected from us,” Woods said. “I want to produce operas that people leave the theater and do what people did 200 years ago after The Marriage of Figaro: They go out and talk about it because it’s relevant to their lives.
“This company was not going to get noticed doing the top 20 operas. We’re now getting international press. … That doesn’t happen to regional opera companies,” he continued.
“When the recession happened, I said [to the board], ‘We can retreat into Bohème,’ and they [said], ‘That’s not what we said we were going to do. Let’s stay true to what we said we were going to do.’ ”
Communing with ghosts
Vavrek, 33, remembers exactly how he felt when Woods approached him and Little with the concept of penning an opera about Kennedy.
“I said, ‘[Now] I can take a cab home from dinner.’ We were elated,” he says. “It was this really big lightning bolt that came into our lives.”
Woods had discovered the work of Vavrek (who comes from a musical-theater background) and Little (artistic director of the experimental new-music ensemble Newspeak and a former heavy metal drummer) at an Opera America new-works forum.
Individually and collectively, they were already on their way to making names for themselves. Little’s multimedia Soldier Songs opera (a work based on interviews with veterans) and Vavrek’s musical take on Breaking the Waves, bad boy Danish director Lars von Trier’s 1996 film starring Emily Watson, are the kinds of projects that brought them attention.
Woods certainly liked what he heard and approached them.
“ ‘I’ve got this crazy idea about an opera about JFK’s last night in Fort Worth, but I don’t want it to be about the assassination and I don’t want him to go to Dallas. I want it in Fort Worth,’ ” Woods recalled saying. “A few minutes later, we had dinner and they said, ‘Let us tell you why we should write this piece.’
“Everybody expected us to get an established composer, Mark Adamo (Lysistrata) or Jake Heggie (Dead Man Walking, Moby-Dick), and we really didn’t want to do that. We wanted to find the next new voice and say, ‘Here’s your chance to write a grand opera.’ ”
Vavrek and Little, who both live in the New York City area, came to Fort Worth to “commune with the ghosts,” as Vavrek describes soaking up the atmosphere before pen hit paper. That meant Billy Bob’s and barbecue, the Stock Show and the Amon Carter Museum, the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas and the former Hotel Texas, now the Hilton Fort Worth, where JFK spent his last night alive, in Room 850. (Vavrek grew up in a small town in Alberta, Canada, so already had a fondness for the Cowtown vibe.)
“When we’re working, it’s very much driven by instinct,” said Little, 37. “The idea that one’s surroundings form one’s life, that if you choose to hang a certain painting in the space where you work, that painting will inevitably inform what you do.
“For us, feeling the ghosts and just being at the hotel, standing on the spot where Kennedy stood, we carried those with us as we started working on the piece.”
Set pieces, created by designer Thaddeus Strassberger, will include the Fort Worth skyline outlined in lights, “TEXAS” spelled out in neon letters and projected images that reference the Kennedys’ stay in Fort Worth.
“There are some lines and references that are perfect for the story that anybody in Washington or Berlin is going to get, but to us who live here, they are little gems,” Woods said. “Jack and Jackie sing ‘There are no faint hearts’ to each other, which is what the president said: ‘There are no faint hearts in Fort Worth.’ That’s a beautiful piece of prose, but we as Fort Worthians will recognize it. … I love that it really feels like there are little gifts to the people of Fort Worth scattered all through it.”
One of the elements that made a big impression on Vavrek and Little was the video of the breakfast meeting where Kennedy spoke to the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce.
“As soon as I watched the video, I knew the direction [I wanted to take],” said Little. “It had this special quality to it. The man who was hosting the news broadcast was talking about the McKinley assassination. There were things that, in retrospect, seem otherwordly and that immediately rang true for me.”
For all of the research, the opera — which stars Matthew Worth as JFK, Daniela Mack as Jackie Kennedy, Daniel Okulitch as LBJ, Talise Trevigne as hotel maid Clara and Sean Panikkar as secret-service agent Henry Rathbone — is not at all concerned with what JFK really did in his final hours.
It’s more of an impressionistic interpretation of the Kennedys in their hotel room surrounded by famous paintings that had been installed specifically for their visit. (It should also be noted that the Fort Worth Opera advises that JFK is for “mature audiences.”)
Vavrek and Little let the narrative unfold using dreams and visions that flash back, foreshadow or parallel JFK’s political tasks and ambitions, as well as their personal touchpoints. They sing of the first time they met, of losing a child and of other family misfortunes.
The paintings serve as portals to those dreams and the characters they involve.
“It’s a much more poetic telling of the story,” Little explained. “The word ‘poetic’ is key for knowing what to expect.”
Musically, JFK is not as nontraditional as Dog Days. The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra will accompany under the direction of conductor Steven Osgood. Members of the Texas Boys Choir will sing, as they did for Kennedy’s breakfast event in Fort Worth.
(Little told The Daily Beast in a recent article that “what they were singing was The Eyes of Texas … and the words to this are, ‘The eyes of Texas are upon you, you cannot get away,’ and in context knowing that he would be dead within four hours, there was something very spooky about that. ‘Do not think you can escape them; the eyes of Texas are upon you until Gabriel blows his horn.’ This is a very apocalyptic, very doom-laden text.”)
But JFK still courses with Little and Vavrek’s stylistic DNA.
“Dog Days is an amplified piece because it’s an amplified story. This has an orchestra and choir, so it has that grand quality to it,” Little said. “If you listen to all the pieces that [Vavrek and I] have done together, you recognize them as part of the same family. They have a lot in common.”
JFK might not pull in only the musically curious, though, 2 1/2 years after the 50th anniversary of the president’s death.
As only the most recent example of the culture’s continued curiosity about the former president — the miniseries 11.22.63, starring James Franco and based on the Stephen King bestseller, recently was shown on Hulu, and the feature LBJ, which will deal with the Kennedy assassination, is due later this year — the production might attract those who normally might give opera-going a pass but are fascinated by Kennedy’s celebrity.
“There’s an ongoing — I wouldn’t say interest, I would say obsession [with JFK],” said Jerald Podair, a history professor at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., who teaches a course on the JFK assassination.
“Kennedy is the first politician to combine politics, entertainment and celebrity. We had media presidents in the past — obviously FDR used radio — but this is a completely different story and Kennedy was a master of that.”
But it’s not just about the way he lived but the way he died.
“We project our own fears about our own mortality onto Kennedy’s death,” Little said. “It was so public, visible, unexpected and tragic. It’s something that resonates in us.”
Of course, building an opera around a contemporary political event isn’t novel. In fact, two of the most acclaimed operas of recent years are from composer John Adams: Nixon in China, based around President Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, and The Death of Klinghoffer, about the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro ship by the Palestinian Liberation Front and the subsequent murder of Jewish American passenger Leon Klinghoffer.
More recently, Long Beach Opera in California staged the world premiere of Fallujah, which deals with the Iraq War.
But it can be hard for some to shake the stereotype that opera is intrinsically old-world.
“We usually hear these older operas and we think, ‘Oh, they’re doing old subjects,’ ” said Timothy Mangan, classical music critic for the The Orange County Register and a contributor to Opera News.
“But La Traviata is a contemporary opera of its time. It dealt with an issue that was a big deal at the time, which was consumption. The Marriage of Figaro is contemporary of its time and dealt with a political subject, the aristocracy and the servants.
“What matters in the end is the story and the music.”
There are parallels with what’s happening on Broadway and in musical theater where a production like Hamilton — a hip-hop take on the life of Alexander Hamilton — has become a sensation and a mega-hit.
“It does seem like the commercial musicals where people are deciding that just because there’s a movie or a big name attached that it will sell are dropping like flies,” Vavrek said. “These really novel approaches — like Hamilton, The Drowsy Chaperone, Next to Normal, Grey Gardens — are finding legs.”
No one involved says they are particularly nervous about how JFK will be received. Instead, Little said, he just wants audiences to walk away with an appreciation for the fragility of life.
It ends with Worth, as Kennedy, singing, “I’m a lucky man.”
“We want them to realize how beautiful life is,” Little said, “and [that] maybe they should call their mother or an old friend.”
Fort Worth Opera Festival
- April 23-May 8
- JFK: 7:30 p.m. April 23 and May 7, 2 p.m. May 1. Bass Hall. $17-$195.
- The Barber of Seville: 7:30 p.m. April 30 and May 6, 2 p.m. May 8. Bass Hall. $17-$175.
- Buried Alive/Embedded: 2 p.m. April 24 and 30 and May 7, 7:30 p.m. April 26 and 29 and May 3. Scott Theatre at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center. $17-$75.
- Frontiers: 6 p.m. May 4 and 5. Kahn Auditorium at the Kimbell Art Museum.
- Festival packages: $26-$379
- 817-731-0726; www.fwopera.org