David T. Little JFK: Politics, opera, and the evoking of emotion

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Composer David T. Little’s wildly rampant mane of curly hair could pass for an out-of-control Afro. Add a Mephisto­phelean goatee and broad moustache and you might have a rocker or radical campus agitator. In conversation, though, one meets an erudite, articulate, and very down-to-earth classicist teddy bear of a guy from New Jersey (who also just happens to be a rocker and a radical, too, in his own way).

“I always wanted straight hair,” Little says. “But this is what I’ve got, so I just sort of let it go crazy. It’s been organic — like my composition process.”

It’s that process that has made Little a prolific and critically lauded composer, with an impressive catalogue of serious music, from chamber pieces to orchestral works to operas — notably, his grand opera, JFK. This work explores the final hours before US president John F. Kennedy’s 1963 Dallas assassination, through a monumental and moving collage of theatrically virtuosic dream and surrealist sequences. In the words of Little and his collaborator, librettist Royce Vavrek, “It departs as far from reality as the truth requires.”

Co-commissioned by the Fort Worth Opera, Opéra de Montréal and American Lyric Theater, JFK premiered in Fort Worth in April 2016 and is now poised for its Canadian debut at Opéra de Montréal in January.

“Jack and Jackie are really the core of the story,” Little explains. In one fantasy flashback, Rosemary Kennedy, as a “dream guide for Jack”, takes him “to the Moon, where he meets Jackie”. (In real life, Rosemary was the tragic eldest daughter of the Kennedy clan, subjected to an unsuccessful prefrontal lobotomy in her early twenties and subsequently institutionalized for the rest of her life).

There are appearances by two “Fates”, Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone, revenants of the two historical figures who accompanied President and Mrs. Lincoln to Ford’s Theater on the night of that assassination. And there’s even a visit from the remarried Jackie Onassis, who helps dress her Jackie Kennedy self in the iconic pink suit worn in the fateful Dallas motorcade.

By all accounts, the adventurous dream logic of Vavrek’s libretto and Little’s alternately neo-romantic and hard-driving, percussive score generate a ravishing emotional experience evocative of Greek tragedy, where “an audience feels the story of a significant figure and his troubles.”

Little and Vavrek seem to have evolved spontaneously a reinvention of classical structure as they worked out their emotional impulses. Indeed, for Little, composing in general involves the mysterious process of prompting emotional response through what might be called aural legerdemain. “It’s sleight of hand in the creation of a new reality,” Little muses. “I don’t think there’s a formula. It’s a combination of things. Proportion has something to do with it. It also depends on the story you’re telling. It’s a big puzzle.”

It’s a puzzle that Little and his collaborator, Royce Vavrek, have now cracked at least twice, and quite spectacularly at that. Their first collaboration — the post-apocalyptic allegorical opera Dog Days — premiered in 2012 to resounding reviews, with subsequent productions at both Forth Worth Opera and Los Angeles Opera. Its success led quite directly to the commission for JFK.

“I think they are in some ways very different pieces,” Little says of the avant-garde, profanity-peppered Dog Days — the tale of a family contending with privations in a desolated, near-future America, and the dog-man who appears at their door, howling for food — and the later, more urbane and elevated JFK.

“And in some ways they’re not so different. But they’re both definitely the product of Royce Vavrek and me — they’re very us. This is the moment when they’re interested in this thing, and this is where this thing is being explored. We don’t plan it that way. It’s just that we’re very organic in our process.”

Musing further on the rare serendipity of finding so simpatico a colleague, Little says of himself and Vavrek: “We complement each other very well. We’re also very good friends.”

Both are from close-knit rural communities: Vavrek from Alberta, Canada, Little from a dairy-farm-dotted sector of northwestern New Jersey. “In the mornings, going to school, we’d have to wait for the cows to cross the road from one pasture to another to get to town,” Little recalls of his youth. Yet, rusticity notwithstanding, Little’s musical precocities, his particular rhythmic sensibility, and his theatrical flair found expression and nurture.

“I was very involved in anything theatrical, and anything musical that I could,” Little says. “I was very lucky that we actually had a pretty robust program for both.”

Little played percussion in the drum and fife corps and participated in “industrial metal bands, doing Nirvana covers, that kind of thing.” But eventually it was exposure to two unique decoctions of musical promiscuity — one current, one historical — that clarified Little’s future path for him.

“I started by wanting to write film music,” Little reminisces. “That came from Danny Elfman — The Nightmare Before Christmas — when I was 15. But then I heard Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and that was sort of it!” Little eventually dropped film scoring as a priority, gravitating instead toward full-out dramatic music writing. “Writing opera, I’m not only writing the film score,” Little says, “I’m writing the film.”

As for his interest in composition that supports social commentary, as in Dog Days, or that illuminates the intersection of the personal and the political, as in JFK, Little asserts: “One of the things that opera does very well is to deliver difficult, complex political ideas through the emotional, human aspect. That’s the path my work has taken over the years.”

JFK will be performed at Opéra de Montréal January 27 and 30 and February 1 and 3, 2018, all at 7:30 p.m. Additional information and tickets are available at www.operademontreal.com.

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About Author

Charles Geyer is a director, producer, composer, playwright, actor, singer, and freelance writer based in New York City. He directed the Evelyn La Quaif Norma for Verismo Opera Association of New Jersey, and the New York premiere of Ray Bradbury’s opera adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. His cabaret musical on the life of silent screen siren Louise Brooks played to acclaim in L.A. He has appeared on Broadway, off-Broadway and regionally. He is an alum of the Commercial Theatre Institute and was on the board of the American National Theatre. He is a graduate of Yale University and attended Harvard's Institute for Advanced Theatre Training. He can be contacted here.

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