NEW YORK - Perhaps no American composer has faced such an operatic challenge with such outward calm. Opera Philadelphia composer-in-residence David T. Little is devising a way to make John F. Kennedy sing - operatically, and on the eve of his 1963 assassination in Dallas.
"At first, it was very slow. We settled on a baritone rather than a tenor. And there was his speech patterns. He had this very particular accent. Do we explore that? We chose not to. There were all these levels of choices before writing the music. I followed my gut," he said.
The occasion was a November public workshop performance of JFK, the brainchild of the Fort Worth Opera, which commissioned it for a 2016 premiere. The work is being developed in collaboration with American Lyric Theater, with the added participation of Opera Philadelphia, which will host the second workshop in February or March, most likely using students from the Curtis Institute.
Though Little created a sensation with his 2012 opera Dog Days, he hardly subscribes to the romantic notion of genius composers writing operatic masterpieces on the first try. Maybe that applies to Mozart and Wagner, but most theater people don't want to discover their newest work's dramatic lapses at a point of no return.
As of the first workshop, Little and librettist Royce Vavrek had a written a great deal of JFK, though not necessarily in final form. Also, Little is keen to use the insights from the workshop for the still-unfinished final act.
Opera Philadelphia has no plans for a production; JFK is a big piece, something for the Academy of Music, and that's booked up until 2019. But because the company is a center for new work - it currently is developing pieces about Andy Warhol and Charlie Parker, and will present Oscar, about Oscar Wilde, in February - general director David Devan was keen to participate as part of his investment in Little, the company's fourth composer.
No one is denying the risk of this project. "Anytime you put iconic figures on the stage, there are booby traps," said Devan. "The way JFK is going, it's not a biopic. That would sell the art form short. What opera has the potential to do is go deeper in a fictionalized way and bring some greater meaning. Dramaturgically, though, it can be difficult to get to."
The original idea to do something specifically connected with Fort Worth eventually led to the 35th president of the United States, who arrived in that city on Nov. 21, 1963, in the midst of an immensely successful tour of Texas, and spent his final hours there before traveling on to Dallas.
The obvious approach, in dramatizing that calm before disaster, would be to portray the president as a martyr of sorts. For Little, that's too simple.
"There's a mythology that we could explore," he said. "The assassination of Kennedy changed American culture forever. And in the moments right before that happened, we're exploring the anxieties of Kennedy as well as the joys."
Though perhaps America's most glamorous political couple ever, John and Jacqueline Kennedy also could be viewed as at the end of their ropes. She was no doubt grieving over their fourth child, Patrick, dead of a lung ailment two days after his birth only months before. The president suffered from Addison's disease, colitis, and lifelong debilitating back pain. He took a pharmacopeia of medications, sometimes used crutches, and took multiple hot baths daily for relief.
Seizing upon that detail, Little and Vavrek have much of Act I unfolding in the private, vulnerable setting of the president's bathroom, partly to accommodate a variety of flashbacks. One includes the couple's courtship, playfully dramatized with Jacqueline not wanting to tell Jack her name, leaving him to make up a few (one is Arabella, the name of their first daughter, who was stillborn). Moving forward, Lyndon B. Johnson is in evidence, along with other Kennedy contemporaries.
For those who regard Kennedy with great reverence, the "magic bathroom" (as that setting has been nicknamed) might seem rather unpresidential. A pitfall? "If it's done with the right intention and in ways that drive a particular insight, liberties can be taken," said Devan. "If it's gratuitous, it's not going to work."
The most unexpected element, though, is the music's quietude. Though Little isn't known for being demure, key moments in his JFK score have spareness and expanse. "I think there's a stillness to a lot of this," said Little. "The fact that the first act takes place at night . . . Fort Worth is a much quieter city than New York. Capturing that was important."
Though contemporary operas have portrayed historic figures - Nixon in China, for one - few have been as beloved as Kennedy. Attempts to musically dramatize Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King Jr. have not been successful. Also, brilliant as Little is acclaimed to be, he was born in 1978 and is of a generation without first-hand experience of the assassination that left Americans with indelible memories of the man and his death.
The result thus may be an opera that views JFK with objective clarity - or with too much emotional distance. Addressing such elements is partly the purpose of workshops.
"I'm really grateful . . . that Opera Philadelphia offered assistance in helping to develop the work," Little said. "I still have to write the final scene."