A Tale of Two Operas
As a composer, there are few achievements more prestigious than having a grand opera commissioned and performed by a celebrated company. Yet in the short span of four weeks this spring, two School of Music, Theatre & Dance alums-who earned degrees the same year-have seen this dream realized.
JFK, composed by David T. Little (MM’ 02, composition) with a libretto by Royce Vavrek, inaugurated the 10th season of the Fort Worth Opera Festival with its world premiere on April 23. The work is a co-commission by the Fort Worth Opera, American Lyric Theater, and Opera de Montréal.
On May 21, Les Feluettes (Lilies), co-commissioned by Opéra de Montréal and Pacific Opera Victoria, had its world premiere by Opéra de Montréal. Composed by Kevin March (MM’ 93, voice and composition; DMA ’02, composition), the opera features a libretto by Quebec native Michel Marc Bouchard and is based on his 1987 play of the same title, which was adapted into an award-winning film (Lilies) in 1996.
The Les Feluettes premiere took place during Opera America’s annual conference in Montréal, where JFK was part of the Conference’s “New Works Forum,” in which excerpts were performed for industry leaders. As a result, Little and March enjoyed a reunion and a chance to see each others’ work performed. Little said the last time he was in an audience for a Kevin March premiere was for March’s dissertation performance at Michigan in 2002.
In the 14 years since, the paths of the two composers have not crossed. March relocated to Australia several years ago and is well established in Melbourne, composing for a wide spectrum of international ensembles while also teaching composition and music theory at the University of Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.
Little, who earned his PhD at Princeton, is based in New York and is the composer-in-residence with Opera Philadelphia, the Music-Theatre Group in Brooklyn, and the Apples and Olives Festival in Zürich, Switzerland. A prolific artist who has written several small-scale operas along with many works for both large and small ensembles, he is on the faculty of the Mannes School of Music at The New School in New York.
The new operas are the largest undertakings of the artists’ careers. JFK features an orchestra of 52, a cast of 36, a 16-member boys’ choir, and seven principals. (By comparison, Little’s acclaimed opera Dog Days has 11 musicians and a cast of eight.) Les Feluettes also employs a full orchestra, along with 10 principal roles and a full chorus. Each opera is about two hours long and took years to compose, but Little says the work continues. “The thing I’m learning is that it never really ends,” he said, “It’s a living thing.”
Though March and Little clearly have much in common, they took distinctly different roads to their recent world premieres.
From Michigan to Montréal
Kevin March’s journey began as a graduate student, after seeing the film Lilies at the Michigan Theater. Just a few minutes into the screening, March felt strongly that the work was tailor-made for opera.
Featuring “a play within a play,” the story is set in a prison in 1952 and begins with a dying inmate, Doucet, being visited by a bishop and old friend, Bilodeau, to whom he is to make his confession. Instead, Doucet enlists his fellow inmates in performing a play that tells the story of the young lives of Doucet and Bilodeau. It reveals that, in 1912, they were coming to terms with their sexuality within a romantic male triangle that culminates in murder and betrayal. All characters, including women, are played by men.
Not long after seeing the film, March contacted Bouchard, who was intrigued by the idea of creating an opera. Bouchard’s only stipulation was that they retain an all-male cast, which March was happy to do as he found it one of the most intriguing things about the play. He and Bouchard communicated long-distance for several years, developing a working libretto and several musical sketches.
Then, in January 2011, the new artistic director of Opéra de Montréal, Michel Beaulac, asked to meet with Bouchard, who sent an urgent email to March: “I think he wants to talk about doing one of my plays as an opera,” said Bouchard. “Quick, send me everything we’ve got!”
At that point they had been working only in bits and pieces, and in various guises, from string quartet to full orchestration. “We just didn’t know what the opportunity would be,” said March. With a two-week deadline looming, he managed to collect everything he had, and sent it to Bouchard.
In the end, not only did Opéra de Montréal want to commission an opera based on a Bouchard play, they were specifically interested in Les Feluettes. In a further confluence of fortune, Pacific Opera Victoria (in Vancouver) had been harboring the identical interest.
“It was a strange mix of being ready for when the opportunity presented itself,” said March, “and this odd serendipity, this strange convergence of ideas.”
March believes the instruction and mentoring he received at Michigan were critical to helping him clarify his goals as an artist. Both he and Little count William Bolcom and Michael Daugherty among their primary composition professors. For March, Bolcom provided a particularly key lesson.
“One of the very first things he wanted me to do was to write a piece for myself that I would perform,” said March. “So I wrote a vocal piece, and that was probably a real turning point in terms in helping me connect being a performer with being a composer, especially with respect to vocal writing and theatrical music.”
JFK as Greek Tragedy
David T. Little also had a turning point at Michigan: It was when he discovered Bolcom’s opera A View From the Bridge. “It provided a shift in how I thought about opera and theatre, and definitely about how I approached writing for the voice,” he said.
Daugherty, too, was a major influence, and was one of the main reasons Little wanted to study for his master’s at Michigan. “When I first heard his piece Sing Sing: J. Edgar Hoover as an undergraduate I just completely fell in love with it,” said Little. He had a strong interest in “things that felt relevant to us in America,” which led to his interest in the intersection of music and politics. “That ended up being the topic of my dissertation at Princeton and has become a big part of my work,” he said.
While JFK would seem to be a natural extension of that interest, it actually ended up falling into a different category: Greek tragedy. “It has a very mythic quality, even as we’re exploring the people, Jack and Jackie-the troubles in their marriage, suffering the losses of their children [the infant Patrick and a stillborn daughter],” said Little. “Bringing all these different elements together felt like the stuff of Greek tragedy, so we took that approach.”
When the Fort Worth Opera commissioned JFK in 2012, they were very clear that they did not want it to be about Kennedy’s assassination, but to be set the day before the tragedy, when the president and his wife were in Fort Worth. “That could have been a limitation,” said Little, “but it was very freeing.” He and Vavrek ultimately chose to set the work in the city’s Hotel Texas, where the president and first lady spend his last night, recounting moments from their personal and political lives.
“It’s not about the moment that he’s shot,” said Little. “But we also realized that everything is about that moment. So the piece is sort of a reflection, or shadow, of this event. No matter what you do, you can’t escape it; it’s built into the parameters of the piece.”
Little is delighted that another SMTD alum, tenor Sean Panikaar (BM’ 03, MM ’04) is among the JFK cast. He plays a triple role: a Greek Fate (one who measures the thread of one’s life, and determines when it will end); a secret service agent; and Henry Rathbone, the military officer who tried to protect Lincoln from John Wilkes Booth’s lethal gunshot. The remarkable connections between the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations are explored, along with the country’s other presidential assassinations, said Little, “not for their own sake, but for what they tell us about American culture.”
Although March wasn’t able to attend the JFK premiere, he knew that the work was being developed as he worked on Les Feluettes. When he learned of the premiere date, he was struck by what a rare occurrence it was to have major operas by two alumni being premiered within weeks of one another. But he says that in some ways, this is what their lives are all about.
“When you get a nice commission from a big opera company, you think, ‘Wow! This is great!'” he said. “But then you think: ‘Wait; I’m a composer. This is what I do.'”
By Marilou Carlin, director of communications and editor of Michigan Muse.