Review: Opéra de Montréal presents “JFK” by Little & Vavrek at Place des Arts

The contemporary piece makes its Montreal premiere from January 27th to February 3rd

“JFK” at Place des Arts (Photo: Yves Renaud)

JFK is a new opera commissioned by the Opéra de Montréal, Fort Worth Opera, and the American Lyric Theatre. This opulent production premiered in Fort Worth and has now made its way to Montreal.

The work must have been extensively researched by its creators. For those in the audience not acquainted with the details of John F. Kennedy’s life, including a little of his background in the program would have furthered understanding of the work more than the standard, but in this case completely cryptic, synopsis.

To that end, it is helpful to know that:

  • One of his sisters, Rosemary, developed disturbing disruptive behaviour in late adolescence and early adulthood, and consequently;
  • Her father subjected her to one of the first prefrontal lobotomies, with disastrous results;
  • JFK became the first Catholic US president, despite prevailing prejudice against the religion;
  • He suffered from serious chronic pain in his lower back, exacerbated by wartime injuries;
  • He campaigned for the space program which eventually led to the first Moon landing, six years after his death;
  • He experienced unpleasant confrontations with Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev in the early stages of the Cold War;
  • He and his wife Jackie lost two of their four children in childbirth or soon after;
  • His vice-president, Lyndon B. Johnson, succeeded him as president;
  • Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris are a couple who accompanied Abraham Lincoln and his wife to the theatre the night of his assassination (more on this point later).

So there’s a start. Presumably his numerous extramarital affairs are general public knowledge.

“JFK” at Place des Arts (Photo: Yves Renaud)

The opera’s abstract libretto recounts the last night of President Kennedy’s life in a hotel in Texas. In the first two acts, Jackie muses on the anguish of her difficult marriage and her two dead children, while Kennedy agonizes over the pressures of the presidency. He falls asleep fitfully in the bathtub, tormented by anxiety-ridden, morphine-infused nightmares around a larger-than-life Krushchev threatening Nuclear War, Lyndon Johnson boasting about supplanting him as president, his sister’s failed operation, and his strained relationship with his wife. The third act culminates in the Dallas shooting.

As mentioned earlier, the work is likely to be most meaningful to audiences most familiar with the Kennedy mystique. Still, for those less knowledgeable about (or interested in) the minutiae of the Kennedys’ public and personal lives, much of the opera stands on its merits as a drama about the difficulties of a married couple, shaken by infidelity, the loss of children, and the demands of a difficult career in the public eye, and resolving despite everything to not give up on each other or their relationship. Of course, all this turmoil takes place in the shadow of Kennedy’s impending assassination, which the couple must be ignorant of but which the audience cannot forget.

Photo: Yves Renaud

A few of the librettist’s choices worked a little less well. The opening of the opera concerns itself with stating the inevitability of fate, and how many threads come together inexorably to one’s destiny. This might have felt more relevant if it seemed that the story affected anyone other than the Kennedys, but as the couple are the only characters who stand as real three-dimensional beings (all others being allegories or caricatures), it hardly gave the sense of a tangled skein.

The other rather odd choice was to have the Three Fates of Greek Myth appear as characters. Not only that, but the Three Fates were in fact real historical figures: Clotho was represented by a hotel maid, Clara Harris, and Lakesis by a Secret Service agent, Henry Rathbone. The third Fate, Atropos (the Cutter), appeared only briefly and in a walk-on part, unnamed, but presumably as Lee Harvey Oswald. Clearly there is an attempt to draw a parallel between Kennedy’s assassination and Abraham Lincoln’s, since Clara and Henry were present at Lincoln’s assassination as well, and the Cutter is understood to have been John Wilkes Booth in a previous incarnation. Nevertheless the presence of the Fates felt rather pointless, despite superb singing from Talise Trevigne and Sean Panikkar.

JFK was a sometimes very moving, if sometimes confusing, account of the Kennedys’ last night. The work is well-served by a talented cast of excellent singing actors in every part. As a sampler: Daniel Okulitch obviously had tremendous fun as an over-the-top Lyndon B. Johnson, complete with a crystal-clear Texan accent. Many singers have trouble getting good English diction across, but he is clearly not one of them. Daniela Mack was an affecting Jackie Kennedy, along with her counterpart Katharine Goeldner as the future Jackie O. The rotating hotel room set made for captivating action in what could have otherwise been a very static drama. Composer David T. Little produced some very effective moments in Jackie’s hopeful solo as Kennedy falls asleep, in Krushchev’s appearance with Russian Army-style choir, and in Lyndon Johnson’s wild cowboy scene. Royce Vavrek hit the right tone in much of the dream sequences and tender moments of the work.

It is exciting to see the Opéra de Montréal take more and more risks in their programming these last years. It has been quite a while since the company has moved beyond the bounds of the standard Traviata-Bohème-Carmen fare and it is a welcome move, crucial if the art form is to thrive.

L’Opéra de Montréal presents David T. Little & Royce Vavrek’s


When: January 27 & 30 | February 1 & 3, 2018
Venue: Place des Arts, Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier
(175 Saint-Catherine St W, Montreal, QC H2X 3X5)
Language: English (subtitles in English and French)
Duration: 2h10 (one intermission)
Admission: $37.50 – 144.75
Box Office: (514) 985.2258 |

Sandra D'Angelo

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