Fort Worth Opera’s JFK gets its world premiere Saturday. It recounts President Kennedy’s last night on earth, which many may not know was in Fort Worth. The opera blends other forgotten facts with fantasy in a story that some are calling the most anticipated new opera of the American season.
Fort Worth Opera director Darren Woods was looking for a very big, very local original opera for the company’s 70th anniversary. He’s lived in Fort Worth 15 years but this little fact took even him by surprise.
“Our director of production at the time, Kurt Howard said ‘You know, I think that Kennedy spent his last night in Fort Worth.’ And I went, ‘Everybody would know that if that happened,’ Woods recalled. “ ‘That can’t…’ So we Googled it and boy there it was. He spent his last night there.”
Woods liked it. He insisted the story stay in Fort Worth. He didn’t want to include Dallas.
“We know that story and I didn’t want to go there,” Woods said.
And Woods wanted librettist Royce Vavrek, and composer David T. Little to go away from the land of myth, where the Kennedys have been for decades. To make them people again, Vavrek turned things around.
“We took the myth of JFK and we really attempted to make him mortal,” Vavrek said.
The Kennedys arrived in Fort Worth November 21, 1963, stayed in what’s now The Fort Worth Hilton (it was then the Hotel Texas), appeared at a breakfast, then left.
“I remember coming here to this room looking out these magnificent tall windows,” says librettist Vavrek.
He sits in the Presidential Suite of the hotel.
“The window from the hotel suite plays such a huge role in the opera,” Vavrek says. “Jackie opens it. Her fist image is looking out the window.”
“A million miles away, he sleeps…” sings mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, in the role of Jacqueline Kennedy. The the opera’s first aria is Midnight Is The Loneliest Hour.
“And what were those conversations,” Vavrek wonders, “that he had with Jackie in the privacy of this suite?”
Of course, nobody knows. And here is where Vavrek and Little let imagination and wild fantasy take over.
Jackie gives Jack an injection to numb his notorious back pain. Jack falls asleep soaking in the tub. A series of drug-induced dreams and hallucinations follow, including a first-time meeting with Jackie that leads to the opera’s love duet.
In another scene, a pride of Texas political bosses led by LBJ crowd into Kennedy’s bathroom challenging his manhood, political and sexual. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and a giant beach ball make an appearance. So do bouncing cheerleaders and the Texas Boys Choir – both performed for Kennedy in Fort Worth. And always there’s a chorus of the three Greek fates. They determine birth, life and death.
Little and Vavrek say reality and fantasy create tension between joy and tragedy.
“We deviated as much from the facts as the truth required,” Little says.
Both, says Little, are important in making the Kennedys real again for the audience.
“It’s really about this affirmation of life, because we know of the death that is imminent,” he says.
In the last aria, Jack’s optimistic because clouds have passed and it’s a beautiful morning. The sun’s shining so he can leave the car top down. The chorus sits at tables. On the opera stage they wear red-lens 3-D glasses, the kind movie goers wore to watch horror films in the 1960s