JFK, the opera as
Greek tragedy

Opéra de Montreal hosts the Canadian premiere of the American opera about Kennedy’s last day

By Byron Toben

‘Kennedy’ in Gaelic means “armoured head” according to the sur titles above the opera JFK. John F could have used a device like that when gunned down by a shot to the head while driving in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963.

His assassination seems an unlikely object for an opera. A new co-production by Fort Worth Opera, American Lyric Theatre, and Opéra de Montreal now bring this work, with French sur-titles to Montreal. (It had premiered on November 23, 2016 in Fort Worth.) Reviews in the New York Times, the Globe and Mail and the Montreal Gazette generally agreed that it had great visuals, but it needed more work or was too confusing, emphasizing three Greek mythological characters as modern reincarnations.

JFK the Opera - WestmountMag.ca

I’ll get to all that below, but first my own distraction.

On the day of the killing, I chanced to be at the United Nations on a tour, showing an international student from Pakistan around Manhattan. An explanation of the Finnish architect’s design to our group by a pleasant female guide with an Irish name was interrupted by another lady who handed her a note. Reading it she burst out crying, but was able to sobbingly inform the group that JFK had been killed.

In years following, I assembled a 20-book collection questioning the Warren Commission’s finding that Oswald was the lone assassin.

I’ll spare you details, but buzzwords like “magic bullet”, ”missing skull”, “grassy knoll”, “Zapruder film”, “Jack Ruby”, “Kilgallen death” (among many other investigators) came flooding back.

I had watched Barbara Garson’s 1967 satirical off Broadway play, Mac Bird and Oliver Stone’s 1991 conspiratorial film JFK and was recently amazed to see on Wikipedia that there have been ten novels, two comic books, 33 movies, TV or stage shows directly or indirectly touching on the subject. There were also eleven musical entries, of which I had only seen Sondheim’s 1990 Assassins.

The activist H. Rap Brown famously quipped that, “violence is as American as cherry pie”. This seems true as applied to US presidents – four shot dead and 16 with one or more plots or attempts.

But I digress.

JFK the Opera - WestmountMag.ca

‘Jack’ Kennedy himself… is well served by Matthew Worth, while wife ‘Jackie’… is special in a demanding role by soprano Daniela Mack.

The current show has lots of local talent. Librettist Royce Vavrek is a Canadian who had studied at Concordia. The orchestra is the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal. The choir is the Choeur de l’Opéra de Montreal. Playing the Texas cheerleaders are those of the Montreal Allouettes.

Six of the featured singing roles, albeit smaller ones, are Canadian. They are Alexandre Sylvestre (Playing Governor John Connelly), Benoit Le Blanc (Senator Ralph Yarborough), Gaetan Sauvageau (Billie Sol Estes), Philippe Martel (HR speaker Jim Wright), Julien Patenaude (Raymond J.Buck) and Sebastien Haboczki ( a reporter).

Composer David T. Little, an American, had preciously collaborated with Mr Vavrek on several critically acclaimed musical pieces.

The Greek mythical characters added to JFK include Henry T. Rathbone, a Secret Service agent and ancient Greek spirit Lachesis the Alotter (Sean Pannikar) and hotel maid Clara Harris/Clotho the Spinner (Talise Trevigne).

Bombastic fun roles are Nikita Kruschev (Colin Judson) and Vice-President Lyndon Johnson (Daniel Okulitch).

‘The current show has lots of local talent. Librettist Royce Vavrek is a Canadian who had studied at Concordia.’

JFK the Opera - WestmountMag.ca‘Jack’ Kennedy himself, with back brace and all, is well served by Matthew Worth, while wife ‘Jackie’, pink pill box hat and all, is special in a demanding role by soprano Daniela Mack. As she later becomes Jackie Onassis, she turns into a mezzo-soprano (Katherine Goeldner).

Much is made of Jack’s sister, Rosemary (Cree Carrico), condemned to a mental institution and a botched lobotomy.

Lots of moons and night dreams, luncheons and crowds, JFK manages to throw in brief reference to the tragedies in his otherwise charmed life… older brother Joe Jr killed in plane crash during WW II, his own near drowning in the Pacific, his two early dead children, Patrick (miscarriage) and Anabella (stillborn), his father’s stroke.

Of course yet to come were the assassination of younger brother Robert, the car crash by youngest brother Ted in Chappaquiddick, and the plane crash of son John Jr. When those Greek furies settle on a family, they are persistent.

As to the musical score, pedestrian me liked a brief riff on pop tune The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You the best.

At the intermission, I saw local jazz singer Mary Ann Lacey in the crowd and sought her opinion as to the music. She ventured that all the passages sounded the same. I agreed, being a Broadway music kinda guy, appreciating a variety of different rhythms, many that could be stand-alone solos. Italian operas have distinctive melodies like Vesti la Guiba from Pagliacci or Toreador in Carmen but less so in English language opera.

JFK continues at the Place des Art on February 1 and 3.

514 985-2258

Bouton S'inscrire à l'infolettre – WestmountMag.caImages: Yves Renaud

Read also: A masterful portrayal of apartheid

Byron Toben is the immediate past-president of the Montreal Press Club.

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