Opera singers who audition for principal roles might hear any number of adjectives to describe their tryout performance. Perhaps a “good,” or “excellent,” followed by a “thank you, we’ll be in touch.”
For baritone Matthew Worth, the description that was assigned him after a particular audition in December 2014 was “presidential.” Considering the role was that of President John F. Kennedy in the world premiere of JFK, that particular adjective sealed the deal.
Securing the role was, for Worth, the fulfillment of a two-year dream that had begun when Fort Worth Opera General Director Darren K. Woods first told him the company had commissioned a work about the 35th U.S. president. It was 2012, and the baritone was starring in Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers in Fort Worth.
“I said, ‘If you’re writing that for baritone, I’m going to lobby hard for it,’” Worth says.
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And, like a true politician, lobby he did — right up until that New York audition with the opera’s creative team. Worth delivered the role vocally, physically and, most importantly, “presidentially.”
At 6 foot 2 and with dark hair, soft blue eyes and a chiseled jaw, the 37-year-old from the East Coast more than resembles the handsome young president. And, although Kennedy’s singing voice is not well documented, The New York Times has called Worth’s baritone “fully powered and persuasively expressive.” Another description befitting of someone filling the highest office in the land.
“Casting-wise, we were more interested in dramatic animals,” says librettist Royce Vavrek. “Opera has long been considered a musical medium that favors amazing technique, but more and more, we want people who are fabulous singers who are completely connected to their dramatic core. The way [Matthew] was able to communicate his text and selection is what drew us to him.”
Worth’s presidential dreams will become reality April 23 when JFK makes its world premiere at Bass Hall, kicking off the 10th Fort Worth Opera Festival. The lineup also includes Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, a doubleheader of new works based on Edgar Allan Poe stories — Jeff Myers’ Buried Alive and Patrick Soluri’s Embedded — and the return of Frontiers, which showcases snippets of eight works in development.
The premiere of JFK, a co-commission with New York’s American Lyric Theater and Opéra de Montréal, comes two-and-a-half years after the 50th anniversary of the president’s assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. There have been myriad books written and films made about the tragedy, of course, so the challenge for this opera was to create an original story with an original approach.
Woods’ idea was to set the piece on Kennedy’s final day and night — which he spent in Room 850 at the Hotel Texas, now a Hilton, at Main and Eighth streets in downtown Fort Worth. The work is described as “an intimate portrait of President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy on the eve of the President’s fateful trip to Dallas.” Creative duo Vavrek and David T. Little (the team behind last year’s arresting Dog Days) let the narrative unfold using dreams and visions that flash back, foreshadow or parallel JFK’s political tasks and ambitions. Well-known paintings on loan from Fort Worth institutions, famously brought to Hotel Texas by Ruth Carter Stevenson, are used as portals to tell parts of the story.
“We wanted to find a way to go as deep as we could,” says Little. “When we decided to liberate the story from reality, it allowed us to explore these characters’ lives in a poetic way, different than in a documentary way.”
Daniel Okulitch (FWO’s Little Women, Frau Margot, Dead Man Walking) sings Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, dressed in a cowboy hat and boots, and brings a comedic touch. Other characters include a hotel maid named Clara Harris (Talise Trevigne of FWO’s Hamlet), Secret Service agent Henry Rathbone (Sean Panikkar of La bohème and The Pearl Fishers), Rosemary Kennedy (Cree Carrico) and Jackie Onassis (Katharine Goeldner).
Worth, who is a specialist in new opera, has created a number of new roles, including the role of Raymond Shaw in the world premiere of Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell’s The Manchurian Candidate with Minnesota Opera. He has won critical acclaim recently in Ricky Ian Gordon’s Green Sneakers and Puts’ Silent Night. In September, he’ll appear in the premiere of Naga, part of the Ouroboros Trilogy in Boston with Beth Morrison Projects. For someone who loves original roles, the proliferation in new works across the American opera landscape in the past 10 years has offered plenty of challenges, Worth says.
“The business will tell you what it is you’re best at,” Worth says after an Indulge photo shoot in the Kennedy Tribute Suite at the Hilton Fort Worth in mid-March. “Luckily for me, [new work is] what I enjoy most. Somewhere along the line, you’re an interpreter of 21st-century American opera, which is where we’re headed. And it’s not just the progressive companies — and you have two here, with the Dallas and Fort Worth operas — but with opera companies all over America.
“I’m a driven person. If there’s a challenge, I’m going to go for it.”
Worth grew up in Hartford, Conn., the son of two elementary school teachers. His early interest in music began with jazz. He played trombone in high school and in big bands in the Northeast. He was also a singer, and that passion took him to the Juilliard Opera Center, when he started performing as a recital artist, appearing in concerts with the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, the Boston Pops, Atlanta Symphony and others.
His jazz training, he believes, had a profound effect on his opera career, especially with modern music like Little’s for JFK. “The first book I was given [about jazz] was called Rhythm; it was about the importance of learning your rhythm. It has reaped benefits,” Worth says. “Because [Little] was a rock drummer, so much of his music is driven by rhythm.
“Some singers run into trouble with his music because the rhythm is tricky. He doesn’t make it melodically difficult, but he holds you accountable for precise rhythmic interpretations, so it’s something I’ve been used to.”
Worth, who was born in June 1978, wasn’t alive when the Kennedy assassination changed the American cultural landscape and says he doesn’t have “a particular interest in Kennedy lore.” But he has a geographic and cultural connection with the late president. “I’m a New Englander,” he says. “I spent my life in the sort of hallowed grounds that the Kennedys found themselves in.”
Worth acknowledges that Kennedy is an iconic figure. Plenty of history buffs could be in the audience, as could people who knew the president. The temptation might be to play him as a historically accurate character, as many actors before him have done in movies and television. Or to feel pressure to make him a more contemporary figure. But Worth remembers hearing Kevin Spacey talk about his performance in Richard III at Brooklyn Academy of Music. “Someone asked him, ‘Do you have to make [Shakespeare] contemporary?’ He replied, ‘You don’t have to make it contemporary, but you have to make it current,’” he says.
JFK is the most ambitious work yet for Vavrek and Little. It is their first grand opera; conductor Steven Osgood will conduct the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. And yet, for all the historical research that went into the piece — they spent two weeks in Fort Worth studying the area and its institutions — sometimes the writing was as organic as it is in everyday life. They describe writing Jack and Jackie’s final scene together on the back of a napkin in a bar.
“We began with trying to understand the landscape and the facts about Jack’s last 12 hours, and with the help of a dramaturg we figured how to make it a piece of theater,” says Vavrek.
That includes references to the not-so-complimentary sides of JFK, such as his reliance on painkillers for back pain, and his infidelities. “The only time [infidelity] comes to the forefront is this piece where Jack is [sleeping] and Jackie sits above him and she looks at this fragile, broken man and she recommits herself to him. She says, ‘I am with you; we are a team,’” Worth says.
There is a larger, more important legacy to convey outside of the idyllic Camelot world that many still associate with the Kennedys. (Although fashion fans needn’t worry — some of the iconic looks are being re-created with luxe tweeds and other fabrics by costume designer Mattie Ullrich.) “When you’re conceiving a person, you want a full character,” Little says. “We weren’t especially interested in scandal or anything like that, but the fact that there was a history of affairs from Jack — how it influenced his and Jackie’s characters was important.”
“We really wanted to emphasize the hope that Jack brought to people,” adds Vavrek, “and there are references to the bigger ideas he provided to the nation.”
Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack makes her Fort Worth Opera debut as Jacqueline Kennedy. It is also the first time she and Worth will perform together.
“Our chemistry is important,” Worth says. “It has been very organic in how we’ve developed our relationship. … Because the relationships in this story are so true, [we can explore] the hopes and fears that exist in each of us.”
Because JFK is a new opera, there have been several workshops and readings of the work, first with piano and then with orchestra. Along with director Thaddeus Strassberger, who also designed the set, Worth, Mack and the other performers have had the rare opportunity to be part of the developmental phase of an opera.
“This is one of the benefits of working with a living composer and librettist,” Worth says. “David and Royce are totally open with talking through their process. If there is something that is troubling to me, I can say this part gives me anxiety, or something like that, and they will listen.
“Every once in a while I’ll get a new note from David or Royce,” he continues. “Part of our job is to take what the composer hears and what the librettist writes and make it possible.”
Fort Worth Opera Festival
April 23-May 8. Festival packages are $26-$379. For more information and tickets, call 817-731-0726 or visit www.fwopera.org. The Fort Worth Opera Festival marks the opening performance of JFK with a multicourse dinner April 23 at the Hilton Fort Worth. An opening-night dinner at Grace will mark the first performance of The Barber of Seville on April 30. For reservations for each dinner, $150, call 817-288-1214 or visit www.fwopera.org.
JFK: 7:30 p.m. April 23 and May 7; 2 p.m. May 1, Bass Hall. $17-$195
The Barber of Seville: 7:30 p.m. April 30 and May 6; 2 p.m. May 8, Bass Hall. $17-$175
Buried Alive/Embedded: 2 p.m. April 24, 30 and May 7; 7:30 p.m. April 26, 29 and May 3, Scott Theatre at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center. $17-$75
Frontiers: 6 p.m. May 4 and 5, Kahn Auditorium at the Kimbell Art Museum
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