First ‘Hamilton’ the Musical, Now JFK the Opera

The creators of JFK, a new opera about Jack Kennedy’s assassination, hope that their ‘cosmic’ work brings opera to a new young audience.

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In November 1963, President John F. Kennedy was on a two-day, five speech tour through Texas, starting in Fort Worth and ending in Austin. He never made it to Austin as the middle stop was, of course, Dallas on Nov. 22.

A new opera focuses on the far lesser-known stop Kennedy made in Fort Worth his final night and morning before the assassination.

In April 2012, Fort Worth Opera, with Opéra de Montréal and American Lyric Theatre, co-commissioned the new work from composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek to celebrate the Fort Worth Opera’s 70th anniversary and the 10th anniversary of their opera festival.

The opera, JFK, has its world premiere April 23 at Fort Worth Opera.

Composer David T. Little explained to The Daily Beast that the opera company “came to a point where we realized that there’s no way the story cannot be about the assassination but that’s different than making about ‘Who Killed Kennedy,’ which this is not. It’s a much bigger thing.”

This is not an opera of conspiracy theories.

“It’s not that story…it’s a story that is not widely known,” said Little. “You think of Kennedy in Texas and you don’t think of something positive that happened the morning of November 22, and actually the feeling in Fort Worth that morning, both from the people, from all accounts that we can access—also the Kennedys and the political entourage—was a very positive feeling.

“In Dallas, Mrs. Connally [Nellie Connally, wife of Texas Gov. John Connally] is said to have said, ‘Mr. President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you,’ moments before he was shot.”

It is not a conventional biographical opera either, said Little, who instead calls it “phantasmagoric.”

Political figures, and especially significant political moments in history have been used as inspiration for operas before.

The Mother of Us All, about Susan B. Anthony, by composer Virgil Thompson with a libretto by Gertrude Stein, premiered in 1947 at Columbia University.

Philip Glass’s Satyagraha is based on the life of Gandhi and premiered at Netherlands Opera in 1980. The Metropolitan Opera most recently produced Satyagraha in 2011.

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Composer John Adams’s Nixon in China was inspired by Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China and premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 1987. Nixon in China had its Metropolitan opera debut in 2011.

Adams also composed The Death of Klinghoffer, which depicted the 1985 hijacking of the passenger liner Achille Lauro by terrorists and the eventual murder of handicapped 69-year-old Jewish-American Leon Klinghoffer.

The opera premiered in 1991, and the Metropolitan Opera’s recent production of The Death of Klinghoffer in October 2014 was met by huge protests in Lincoln Center and even threats of violence.

In 2011, JFK composer Little wrote a highly regarded NYT op-ed piece about politics in music, and he wrote his doctoral essay on the subject for Princeton.

Although he has tackled political issues in his earlier works Soldier Songs and in one of his previous collaborations with Vavrek—the acclaimed Dog Days—Little eschews any direct labeling of JFK as a political opera.

“The piece is not so political in a way,” he said. “It’s not as political as Soldier Songs. Or Dog Days, which I think has a strong political perspective about civilization and indirectly about fascism. In JFK there is a scene with Khrushchev and a scene with Lyndon Johnson, but I don’t think it gets into the political. I think it’s more existential. I think it’s more about mortality and fate than it is about any sort of political dimension [of his life],” Little told The Daily Beast.

“In the case of JFK we’re really approaching a sort of seismic shift in culture and American history where there was America before the assassination and America after the assassination, and that’s how we tried to approach the piece.”

Little and Vavrek found particular inspiration in a speech Kennedy made in Fort Worth to the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce the morning before heading to Dallas.

Far lesser known than Kennedy’s more famous speeches, the YouTube video of “JFK Fort Worth Breakfast Speech November 22 1963 TV coverage” has only 14,770 views, as compared to Kennedy’s inaugural address, which has more than 1.2 million views, or his announcement of the Moon Program speech at over 1 million views.

Many of the aspects of the “Breakfast Speech,” as it came to be known, were almost disturbingly prescient.

“For example,” said Little, “the Texas Boys Choir is present at the breakfast meeting (we do have the Texas Boys Choir in the opera and they do sing in the opera) and what they were singing was ‘The Eyes of Texas’ which I think is the UT fight song 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 4 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.”

Little also mentioned the TV reporter doing the voiceover for the breakfast meeting, noting that that morning Kennedy went out to give an impromptu speech to a crowd of people that had gathered outside.

Little said Kennedy had told the group that the Secret Service didn’t like him doing it because William McKinley was out speaking to people when he was shot by an assassin [Leon Czolgosz, in Buffalo in 1901]. “And this is hours before he’s going to die, and there’s this sort of premonition being presented by this newsman.”

Little continued, “That initial response that I had to the film (The Breakfast Speech) was a mythic response, it was a cosmic response, it was something is happening here that is not of this world. And we just tried to mine for that kind of stuff as much as we could.”

Myth, though source material for opera since its inception over 400 years ago, can be both liberating and difficult when dealing with characters from real life and especially recent history.

One can risk losing the flawed, intimate, human nature of the characters when projecting them onto a mythic template. Little and Vavrek endeavored to strike the right balance between the Kennedy mythology and the Kennedy reality.

However, mythic templates permeate JFK, including references to the Fates of Greek mythology and Morpheus the Greek god of Dreams.

Little explained, “One of the main conceits of the piece is that two of the three Fates are in Fort Worth, and their role is to propel the Kennedys through their time in Fort Worth to the Cutter, the third Fate, who is in Dallas. The Spinner and the Alotter of the Fates are also Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone, who historically are the two people who were in Lincoln’s box when he was assassinated, but in this world play a hotel maid and a secret service agent.”

The piece, Vavarek said, opens on the night before the assassination. “Jack is soaking the bathtub and Jackie is by the window smoking a cigarette…Jack was taking barbiturates and sleeping pills and pain killers—he had a very bad back so was always medicating his back issues or putting on braces to hold him up.”

Kennedy receives a shot of morphine, leading to the dramatic presence of Morpheus, God of Dreams, himself.

Vavrek said, “I think that because it is such a huge cosmic narrative, we are talking about big ideas and the mythic. But we also tried to divorce the myth, the legend, from the man and create these unbelievable private, hyper-intimate sessions with these characters. It gives you emotional access into the psychological prism of Jack and Jackie the night before everything changed—not only for them but for the entire world.”

Vavrek hopes JFK and the use of other modern stories and narratives might create new portals for younger and new audiences to gain access to the world of opera.

“I think that generally the younger generation doesn’t have much access to opera. It’s hard for them to imagine that a Mozartian way of storytelling is going to directly affect them in some way. I think that what we have the potential to do is tell stories that make people understand, or feel like, they have a connection to this particular artistic medium of opera.”

JFK premieres at Fort Worth Opera on April 23 with additional showings on May 1 and May 7. For more information on JFK and to purchase tickets, visit the Fort Worth Opera Festival.

JFK Prologue—“Spin, Measure, Cut” on SoundCloud