World Premiere Opera Opens in Fort Worth

The night before her husband’s assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy looks into a Monet painting titled “Artist’s Granddaughter,” which hung in their room at Hotel Texas in Fort Worth. Jacqueline mourns the loss of her child earlier that year as she stares into the painting of a woman with a child in her lap. What would it have been like to be a mother to the little boy and the stillborn girl she lost the year before? This is a moment in JFK, a Fort Worth Opera world premiere opening April 23 to celebrate the opera’s Spring Festival’s 10th anniversary and the company’s 70th anniversary.

“Ingenious in its inception, tantalizing in its collaborators, potentially powerful and disturbing in its realization, Fort Worth Opera’s JFK … promises to be the most anticipated premiere of the American opera season,” Opera News wrote in a review of a sneak peek.

Years ago Fort Worth Opera’s general director Darren K. Woods knew he needed to make huge changes to keep the company alive. Like most opera companies in the U.S., they were struggling to identify with younger audiences and were considered a thing of the past. But Woods did what almost no other opera company in the U.S. has done successfully. He changed it from a traditional stagione season to a packaged spring festival.

“It was going to be the best or worst idea I have ever had. There would be no in between,” Woods said.

Matthew Worth and Daniela Mack

Woods also knew he had to create an identity separate from the Dallas Opera. This was the obvious answer because it allowed Fort Worth Opera to package contemporary operas like Angels in America with traditional operas like Madame Butterfly or the Barber of Seville. With this format, he grabbed the attention of younger audiences and rebranded opera, something he is now known for all over the country. Even the Portland Opera and Vancouver Opera companies are moving to the festival format and calling Woods for advice.

“Had we not gone to the festival, we wouldn’t be the great company we are,” Woods said.

He makes a great point: People aren’t necessarily going to travel to Fort Worth to see La Traviata, but they may come to see an unknown contemporary piece. Woods is known for his eye for sometimes little-known operas that are provocative. Under his brilliant direction, Fort Worth Opera has brought some seemingly expired operas back to life.

Packaging both traditional and contemporary pieces in a festival format also allows for the Fort Worthian and international attendee alike to enjoy the many robust flavors of opera. It is the festival format that allowed for the much-anticipated JFK.

While the Fort Worth Opera has been operating now for 70 years, making it one of the oldest in the country, Woods and his artistic team decided years ago they wanted to blow everyone away with a world premiere for both their 10th and 70th milestone anniversaries. He wanted the opera to be based on a real event that happened in Fort Worth but has worldwide relevance. It isn’t about Fort Worth, but he did bring his beloved city onto the international stage without being self-serving.

“I want something that is a real Fort Worth story but has international implications. The Fort Worth person could see, but everyone would understand,” Woods said.

Woods wanted to focus on that night John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy came to Fort Worth’s Hotel Texas and delivered a hope-filled speech to the Chamber of Commerce over breakfast the next morning. Hours later JFK would be assassinated in Dallas, but Woods didn’t want to focus on that. He wanted it to be a biopic or biographical. The opera offers a peek into “Jack and Jackie’s” humanity, something universal and relatable no matter how untouchable the couple seemed.

After four years of teeth-grinding work and dedication, Woods, librettist Royce Vavrek, and composer David T. Little pulled it all together, and the reviews of sneak previews have made Woods proud.

Opera News writes, “JFK has a depth, emotionalism and diversity of instrumental color that does indeed qualify it as a full-fledged opera, however grand. The detailed notation and sometimes exotic use of percussion—Little’s instrumental specialty—is particularly notable.”

Just how were librettist Vavrek and composer Little going to create a plot when all they knew was the Kennedys got to Hotel Texas in Fort Worth at 11:50 p.m. the night before the assassination?

Their dreams.

“The librettist and composer said, ‘We have no idea what they did in the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth,’ [but] it was freeing because they could use their dreams as a point of departure,” Woods said.

Although the story comes alive through their dreams, the JFK opera is all based on facts gathered during their research. Former opera critic and current researcher, William Madison, hosted Vavrek and Little in North Texas for two weeks using collected interviews from people who spent time with the Kennedys in Fort Worth that morning and other research.

During the opera the audience experiences these hypothetical dreams both Jack and Jackie have. Because Jack had back problems and used pain medicine regularly in his real life, his dreams are morphine-induced. Fort Worth native, American patron of the arts, benefactor, and daughter of Amon G. Carter, Ruth Carter Stevenson filled the hotel lobby and the Kennedy’s hotel room with art she collected. These paintings act as portals for Jack and Jackie’s dreams, yet introduce the audience to a little Fort Worth heritage and culture.

Nathan DePoint, director for Fort Worth Opera’s artistic administration, describes how minutes into the opera during the first dream, Jack follows his sister Rosemary into the painting “Geyser Pool, Yellowstone” by John Henry Twachtman. His sister vanishes, and Jack finds himself on the moon arguing with Nikita Khrushchev, the former Premier of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Khrushchev sings in Russian so there is a language barrier but also metaphorical barrier, and neither tries to understand the other or back down. The moon is a nod to Kennedy’s space aspirations, which he never lived to see.

“David and Royce were able to explore their fears and dreams that were affecting the president and first lady during that time,” DePoint said.

Woods chooses and commissions operas that are relevant today. With growing tensions in the Middle East, discussions of terrorists living among us, and a growing political divide in the U.S., the opera hopes to speak to its current audience’s hopes, fears and shared humanity. In the next dream, we watch the couple fall in love.

The story transitions into what DePoint said was “one of the most beautiful moments of the entire opera.” In a “moment of stillness” the audience experiences the entire courtship between Jack and Jackie compressed into minutes. They are flirting and have their first kiss. Their true love remembered while soft and lyrical music weaves the narrative together.

“It harkens back to the way it felt when we all first fall in love. It is about all the things that every single person faces in some way or another,” DePoint said.

The next morning in Fort Worth was a cold, rainy November day. Just before noon the clouds cleared and the sun came out. In the opera Jack looks at Jackie and says, “Let’s ride with the top down.” The audience will know what happens next, but the performance ends there, an unexpected message of hope mixed with heaviness of heart.

Jack’s final aria is about his dream-induced reflections of his life and how he has been a “lucky man.”

“One thing that David said after writing the final aria is we hope that when you leave the theater you understand how precious life is. We have this random allotment of time on this earth, and we need to be thoughtful on how we use those minutes,” Vavrek said. “You want to hug a friend when it is over.”

The audience has to wonder, did the beautiful weather make this possible? Was innocence lost by something as beautiful as the sun? How can such tragedy come from beauty and vice versa? This opera displays that undulating dance of life everyone experiences between despair and joy, fear and hope, withering and thriving.

“Because of who these two icons were, it is so amplified in the history of this country. What they wanted to do is make them as human as possible and not focus on the mystical element of them,” DePoint said.

This opera is about two iconic and untouchable figures in history, yet they grapple with the same questions we do. Jackie lost two children. Their marriage was anything but easy. Jack’s task as a U.S. president during The Cold War weighed heavy on his shoulders, as it would anyone. Then there was the drug use, the women, and the wars within. But mixed in with all of that was a deep love for his wife and children. When Jackie came to Fort Worth, that was her first public appearance since she lost her son Patrick roughly six months before. He was 39 hours old.

Woods said with confidence this will be an opera people will still be staging for the next 200 years.