JFK Opera: An American Opera

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Continuing their new tradition of presenting one modern work per season, this year Montreal Opera decided to opt for JFK by composer David Little and librettist Royce Vavreck.

Alternating between the world of dreams and real life, the opera’s story is based on the final night of American president John F. Kennedy’s life spent at the Hotel Texas before he was assassinated on November 22, 1963. The opera portrays a surreal decadent picture of the Kennedy couple and it satirizes every possible American and Russian stereotype.

The show begins with huge bright neon, flashing lights that read: TEXAS. The use of this kind of lighting, stayed through most of the show as a conducting thread of tastelessness.

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The major part of the work occurs at the hotel. A revolving stage is used cleverly to transport the action from one part of the dwelling to another without any brakes. However, most of the action evolved in the bathroom/main room where Kennedy (Jack) is trying to relax by taking morphine in the tub while his wife Jacqueline Kennedy (Jackie) unwillingly assists him and panics, failing to catch any sleep.

Musically, one of the most memorable lyric moments came in the Jackie and Jack “Love duet,” while Jack is having nightmares on a bad morphine trip, he catches a break when he starts dreaming about Jackie. The orchestration is unparalleled at that point, as we feel transported musically into the world of dreams. The staging is also beautiful, as it displays a surreal yet romantic view of planet earth in the background, behind both characters.

Vocally, the star of the show was Canadian baritone Daniel Okulitch who was hilarious as Lyndon B. Johnson, who replaced Kennedy as President after his assassination. In the opera, he is portrayed as a somewhat parody of a red neck-macho from Texas. The other four singers that accompanied him did a great stylistic job, showing versatility and going from time to time to a more pop-country type of voice production.

Another singer worth of mention was Colin Judson who played the Soviet statesman Nikita Krushchev. He managed to sing an almost impossible score that consisted of a nonsense flurry of high notes and declamations.

In a way JFK is a very American stereotype kind of opera. It is not afraid of adding unnecessary politically incorrect comments. It’s a grand type of opera with heavy orchestration, a big choir and very extreme high notes. We feel as if we are watching an opera based on comic-book characters visually inspired by Marvel combined with the humour from cartoons such as Family Guy or The Simpsons. It’s a guilty pleasure type of opera, comparable to eating a huge Tex-Mex taco in one of those popular food trucks at 2 am, while adding caviar on top and drinking Champagne.

Sour grapes:

  • The main character “Jack” didn’t have the vocal material that one would expect from a charismatic politician. However that might be just what the composer wanted.
  • The opera was too long; we had to wait almost 2 hours before the first intermission break.
  • Too many nonsense high notes for the male voices in general. It made it feel like a circus more than a work of art.

JFK continues on Jan. 30, Feb. 1 and 3. www.operademontreal.com


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