Performing Arts

Review: ‘JFK’ opera engrossing, sometimes puzzling

Daniel Okulitch as LBJ, center, and Matthew Worth as JFK, right, in Fort Worth Opera’s world premiere of "JFK" at Bass Hall.
Daniel Okulitch as LBJ, center, and Matthew Worth as JFK, right, in Fort Worth Opera’s world premiere of "JFK" at Bass Hall. Star-Telegram

The Fort Worth Opera’s much-anticipated JFK is an engrossing, sometimes puzzling musical tragedy that focuses on the final hours of President John F. Kennedy and the sorrows of first lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.

The premiere performance was Saturday night in Bass Hall — just a few blocks from the Hotel Texas, the site of much of the opera’s action. Except for hallucinatory scenes or dream sequences, the action takes place entirely in Fort Worth. The assassination’s only reference comes in two characters’ silent reaction to the shocking news on television.

Musically, the opera is full of orchestral and vocal sounds that are effective in creating an atmosphere of impending tragedy, though less so in creating memorable melodies.

Composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek clearly view the story as a tragedy in the classical Greek sense. A prologue introduces two Fates, who will decide the character’s destiny and measure his lifespan (a third Fate, who will cut the thread of life, waits in Dallas).

As in Greek tragedy, the protagonist has his flaws. The opera has references to JFK’s multiple infidelities and his dependence on pain-killing drugs. Yet the portrayal is overall sympathetic, especially in the president’s attempts to deal with his physical infirmities.

In JFK, as in real life, the character of Jacqueline Kennedy looms large. In fact, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to title the opera Jackie. She struggles to cope with the deaths of two children, the unfaithfulness of her husband and the demands of political life.

Her portrayal is consistently positive. Not so incidentally, there are two Jackies in this opera: the Jackie most people remember, and the later Jackie married to Aristotle Onassis. They are portrayed by two singers, and in a rare moment, they sing an effective duet.

In a joint note, Little and Vavrek declare ambiguously that “… this work departs as far from reality as the truth requires.” Viewers should keep that in mind when viewing what will probably be the most controversial scene, an acid caricature in which Vice President Lyndon Johnson and a group of cronies invade the presidential suite to harass the president with vulgar language and behavior.

The printed program lists the cronies as Billie Sol Estes, Ralph Yarborough, John Connally, Raymond E. Buck and Jim Wright. Fans of these gentlemen should remember that departing from reality is sometimes necessary to get at the truth. In reality, they didn’t behave like that, did they?

By the way, on Saturday night, this bit of low comedy got the biggest laughs of the evening.

Clarifying whether a scene is a dream, an apparition or “reality” is not always easy in JFK. In addition to LBJ and Jackie Onassis, the apparitions (so identified in the program) include Rosemary Kennedy, the president’s sister, and Nikita Khrushchev.

One character who puzzled me initially was a sword-wielding man in a Civil War-era uniform. Turns out he was a Union officer who tried to capture John Wilkes Booth. This part of JFK also has a kind of roll call of assassinated presidents: Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, with details about the weapon used in each case.

The musical score of JFK is highly effective as a mood-creator. Frequent playing around with pitches is a compositional trademark. The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra under Steven Osgood gave what seemed a well-rehearsed performance, supporting a uniformly fine cast of soloists and some superb choral forces.

The most prominent roles were taken by Matthew Worth (JFK), Daniela Mack (Jackie), Talise Trevigne and Sean Panikkar (the two Fates), Daniel Okulitch (LBJ), Katharine Goeldner (the older Jackie), and Brian Wallin (a reporter).

Director and scenic designer Thaddeus Strassberger and the design team of Mattie Ullrich (costumes) and Chad R. Jung (lighting) provided a striking visual element. A revolving central hotel suite was surrounded by spectacular sights, including a moonscape, the earth from space, an ominous crescent moon and an outline of the Fort Worth skyline. Brilliant colors were the norm.

There were a couple of miscues: The opening remarks seemed out of place (they were too boosterish for comfort), and the intermission was too short. Twenty minutes is not enough to take care of a large audience heading for the restrooms. People were still streaming in after the second act was underway.

Fort Worth Opera Festival

  • April 23-May 8
  • JFK: 2 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. May 7. Bass Hall. $17-$195.
  • The Barber of Seville: 7:30 p.m. Saturday and May 6, 2 p.m. May 8. Bass Hall. $17-$175.
  • Buried Alive/Embedded: 2 p.m. Saturday and May 7, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday 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
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