Contemporary operas tend to have a short performance life. A world premiere may be followed by one other production and then the score is forgotten, succeeded by the next premiere.
Michael Daugherty’s Jackie O is an exception to that pattern. Commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera and premiered by that company’s young artist studio in 1997, the work has received numerous productions throughout the United States and internationally. Conservatories and university music departments have embraced the piece in particular.
The University of Miami’s enterprising Frost Opera Theater stages a three-performance run of Daugherty’s chamber opera Thursday night through Sunday.
Johnson emphasizes that Daugherty’s score requires the same vocal technique as traditional works by Mozart and Puccini. “The Frost Opera Theater is a student-oriented program that prepares young singers for the opera world. As a contributing part of their education, we expose them to very different musical styles and aesthetics.”
Johnson says Daugherty’s opera fits this vision in the best possible manner, and, as students graduate and audition for young artist programs at major and regional opera companies, this kind of versatility will look impressive on their resumes.
Unlike John Adams’ so called “CNN operas” (Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, Doctor Atomic), Jackie O is not a linear narrative or biography of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. In a production note, director Ben Krywocz says librettist Wayne Koestenbaum and Daugherty have created “a post modern montage that offers episodic glimpses of Jackie, the icon, extrapolated from historical fact and converted into imagined encounters and internal musings.”
Johnson believes the opera has one of the finest librettos he has ever encountered. A single word can conjure up an entire social or political movement in the 1960s.
For composer Daugherty, Jackie O represents a major evolution of his musical language from terse, modernist scores like his celebrated Metropolis Symphony (based on the adventures of Superman) to a more lyrical style appropriate to dramatic and vocal performance. Daugherty counts such atonal and experimental composers as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Gyorgy Ligeti, Mario Davidovsky, Earle Brown and Charles Wuorinen among his teachers, yet his own music is cast in a more populist and accessible style. “I had to work with masters of the avant garde to give me the confidence to go on my own path,” he said.
Daugherty believes the opera’s heroine is “a mystery woman, somebody you’ll never know” and sees her story as having larger emotional resonance, embodying a fascinating time in American culture filled with contradictions. He compares Koestenbaum’s libretto to the work of Gertrude Stein in the juxtaposition of metaphor and double entendres. “Within a tale of tragedy, there are moments of irony,” he added, noting a kinship with British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage’s recent opera Anna Nicole. Daugherty says both works broke new ground and were ahead of their time.
The UM Frost School of Music’s once- barely-visible opera program was rejuvenated with the arrival of Alan Johnson as director in 2006. Johnson spent his teenage years in Miami and graduated in 1982 from UM, where he studied piano with Ivan Davis. He spent two decades in New York working with composer Philip Glass on 12 theater, dance and opera premieres as music director-conductor, pianist and vocal coach.
Under his direction, the Frost Opera has presented a series of inventive Mozart productions, operas by Benjamin Britten, Richard Wargo, Michael Torke and Frost faculty member Charles Norman Mason. One FOT pastiche program, “Visions of Orpheus,” offered a fascinating collage of operatic versions of the Orpheus myth from Monteverdi to contemporary treatments by Glass and Ricky Ian Gordon. Vocal and instrumental standards have risen under Johnson’s artistic regime, and the Frost vocal program now attracts many gifted young singers.
Perhaps Frost’s most ambitious presentation to date, Jackie O is part of FOT’s mission to present opera in a creative and compelling manner, Johnson says. In keeping with Johnson’s goal to bring a composer of international stature to Miami every year, Daugherty and librettist Koestenbaum will be present for the opening night and will hold a question-and-answer session with the audience following the performance.
“The increased visibility of 20th and 21st century opera is an exciting development,” Johnson says. “This opera has a high artistic and entertainment value and it documents an important era in America that has greatly influenced our world today.”
Johnson does sees a challenge in educating his student cast about an era that is now a half-century old and from which the opera’s protagonists spring. Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, opera legend Maria Callas (Onassis’ former lover and mistress), artist and pop culture icon Andy Warhol and movie stars Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly all figure prominently in the libretto.
For soprano Vindhya Khare, who sings the title role in the Thursday and Sunday performances of the double-cast run, reading books and watching video was a window into her character. “There were many Jackies,” she observes, “a private Jackie, a bigger than life icon, the devoted wife and mother. Being Jackie is hard because everyone has that icon in their mind.”
Mia Rojas plays Callas in the opening-night cast. The famous soprano has long been one of her idols, she sees her as more than just a publicity-seeking, temperamental diva.
“She was a woman, artist, friend, lover, a human being,” Rojas says. “Under that tough skin, she had vulnerability and experienced love and pain.”
Originally a mezzo, Rojas has converted to the soprano’s higher range. While she says she finds the score challenging, working on Jackie O has helped her focus her vocal registers and gain strength in her lower and middle voice.
But it hasn’t all been work, Rojas says. “Putting this show on is such a blast. It is a powerful piece.”