Skip to main content

In this new opera's universe, JFK is a father too sick to pick up his children and also a president getting yelled at in Russian on the moon

The absurd comedy of JFK is often effective, but the opera needs more time to develop its mixture of irony and beauty.

Are American presidents human? JFK, a new opera by Royce Vavrek and David T. Little, tries to convince us that John F. Kennedy was, in fact, mortal, inflating Camelot's characters to absurdity one minute and showing how they're just like you and me the next.

It's a bold risk, and at Saturday's Canadian premiere at the Opéra de Montréal, it struggled to convince. In this universe, JFK is a father too sick to pick up his children and also a president getting yelled at in Russian on the moon. A morphine shot launches Jack on a bath-time voyage that includes a stop for Nikita Khrushchev and the Red Army moon unit, and watching this opera machine purée the ordinary into drug hallucinations is a lot of fun, but unpredictability doesn't have the emotional weight of drama. At first, it seems that taking a forgotten day in Fort Worth as its subject was brave, but the real risk here is vacillating between biopic and vaudeville in one act, then discarding irony in the next.

The absurd comedy is often effective. In the archly sinister opening, acid discord oozes from the orchestra pit, while truck-size letters spell out TEXAS in horror green like something two teens drive past before they get eaten.

Despite the unevenness, it’s hard to fault JFK for ambition when big-budget Canadian opera suffers mainly from the opposite.

Even a scene as crass as Lyndon B. Johnson's bathtub humiliation of Jack – another morphine vision, it ends with the vice-president's pants around his ankles – fills the hall with the hot air of their rivalry. Meanwhile, slick vignettes of Jack and first lady Jackie's first encounter, or Jack's sister Rosemary Kennedy, pre- and postlobotomy, roll by with the emotional impact of conveyer-belt sushi.

Of course, we know what happens the next day in Dallas. Jack doesn't, which gives everything he sees and does a potential emotional charge. The opera's most affecting moments articulate this tension, carried by the gorgeous voices of Talise Trevigne and Sean Panikkar as Greek Fates Clotho and Lachesis, embodied as maid Clara and bodyguard Rathbone. They see the two bullets coming and can't stop them, so they sing in anguish and rage while they grimly fulfill their duties and the stage rotates on and on like a clockwork abattoir.

Jackie stands at the heart of the opera while Jack is mostly unconscious, but the depth of her mourning for their two dead children – and any sign of Jack's humanity – arrive late in the serious second act. The contrast with the first is strange. Its dream scenes are some of the opera's most original, and deploy director Thaddeus Strassberger and lighting designer Chad R. Jung's garish arsenal to great effect, but by the end of the night they seem flippant in a Greek arc that plunges inexorably toward violent death.

Changes since JFK's 2016 world premiere in Fort Worth nudge the opera toward consistency. The first act has lost some of the manic energy that launched it over an absent plot. Dream transitions now feature clever video projections that emerge from paintings to swallow the whole stage. Rosemary's character is darker and returns as LBJ's prostitute, which would be an important shock if anybody notices. And the third Fate now appears onstage, which doesn't solve the much larger problem of the other two's multiple personalities.

While the audience knows Jack’s fate, the character does not. The opera’s most affecting moments articulate this tension.

Occasionally, the music powers the opera along; massed scenes are particularly strong, and a children's choir adds a tender edge to the glowering Spin, Measure, Cut, but lovely moments are often swept away before they can be felt deeply. A touching scene where Rathbone puts Jack back into bed is followed by an emotional bombshell when Jackie shrugs off his infidelity to sing "I recommit" to wallops of brass, timpani and even a triangle heartbeat that bursts into maudlin violin.

The duet where Jackie dresses her younger self in pink Chanel armour is infinitely better. Katharine Goeldner is haunting as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and she and Daniela Mack as young Jackie exchange grief and affirmation like caresses.

Despite the unevenness, its hard to fault JFK for ambition when big-budget Canadian opera suffers mainly from the opposite, and I left thinking that this is still a young piece. In another era, it would have had a half-dozen revivals before Montreal. Big works have always needed big work to continue development and to respond to our applause, or bewilderment. This opera's mixture of irony and beauty stands out in a field of new work mostly too timid for jokes, but it needs more time.