Jackie O | Michael Daugherty, composer

Jackie O
Opera in 2 acts (1997)

Instrumentation: Soloists=2 sopranos, 2 mezzo sopranos, tenor, baritone, bass baritone; chorus; flute (piccolo), oboe (English horn), Eb clarinet, bass clarinet, soprano sax (alto and tenor); horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba (euphonium); 2 percussion; harp, acoustic guitar, piano (synthesizer); strings (1/1/1/1/1 or small complements)

Publisher: Boosey and Hawkes, Hendon Music (BMI)

Duration: 90 minutes

World Premiere: March 14, 1997 / Houston, Texas / Houston Grand Opera / Christopher Larkin

Program Note:

Jackie O (1997) is a celebration of musical life in the late sixties, a pop opera that explores the interplay of various musical idioms associated with “high” and “popular” culture in America. I draw on my background as a musician who came of age during the sixties, playing in rock and jazz ensembles, performing in avant-garde improvisation groups, and paying my dues as a cocktail pianist in nightclubs, while also being trained as a composer of concert music in the symphonic tradition.

The music I composed for Jackie O is filled with drama and suspense, to heighten the effect of a grand spectacle. I also create more intimate moments for the performance of solo arias. The overture is entitled “Jackie’s Song” and performed by solo cello, introducing an elegiac leitmotif that is repeated with increasingly elaborate orchestration in the course of the opera. The solo suggests an opposition between the private and the public Jackie, and is interrupted by a riveting snare drum rim-shot.

Interruption is an important compositional structure throughout Jackie O. I use sudden shifts in timbre, abrupt tempo changes, and the juxtaposition of consonance and dissonance to create a complex, multi-layered music that registers multiple meanings in Wayne Koestenbaum’s libretto. At times the percussion also serves to disrupt the flow of song, with a ratchet for the ringing telephone, the sound of a siren, or the clicking camera and clicking heels of the tap-dancing paparazzo. All the musical numbers are rigorously structured, with a central motif or “hook” that I transform through polyrhythmic counterpoint and unusual orchestrations.

Most important is the human voice, and each character in the opera has a unique sound world. Jackie’s arias, such as “Egyptian Time,” “Jackie’s Credo,” and “All His Bright Light,” are exotic, mournful and highly expressive. By contrast, the songs performed by Ari have a Vegas sound: “I am Curious Yellow” and “Stiff Drink” are reminiscent of Dean Martin or Sammy Davis Jr., members of the Sixties “Rat Pack.”

Maria gets the operatic treatment in arias such as “Addio del passato” and the “Flame Duet.” Since Maria was losing her voice in the sixties, she sings melodramatically in the low range, and even speaks on occasion. Liz Taylor sings bluesy, cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof riffs, while Princess Grace croons à la Doris Day. Andy Warhol’s aria, like his art, is a series of inflected repetitions.

The chorus plays an important role throughout the opera. They comment on the action like a Greek chorus or the cast of a sixties television variety show such as Laugh In. In “1968” and “Jackie’s Coming” the chorus performs whirlwind, snappy musical numbers punctuated by pulsating brassy rock rhythms. The voices are treated percussively in “Ballerina.” The singers scat on the word “ballerina” while snapping their fingers to a Dancing Jackie, accompanied by a devilish violin. “Don’t Look Back” features contrapuntal layering of voices, and in “1968 (reprise)” the chorus sings one last time in a minor key, as if drugged.

In Act Two, the chorus turns into a gaggle of playboys, singing an updated version of the traditional operatic drinking song: “Stiff Drink” is a catalogue of cocktails from A to Z. They perform to a grooving bass line, crotale, funky guitar, Hammond organ, and flutter-tongued brass. In “All His Bright Light,” the playboys provide a contrast to Jackie’s lyrical meditations, as they chant like robots: “The essence of tragedy is repetition.”

The operatic plot evolves through a series of dramatic duets, such as the exchange of credos between Jackie and Andy Warhol in the first act. In this duet, the soprano and high baritone sing melodies that are mirror images of each other, introduced separately and then combined. Ari and Maria also sing a melodramatic recitative together, in rococo arpeggiations accompanied by a solo horn.

The “Flame Duet” in the second act features Jackie and Maria in a vocal tour de force for two sopranos, framed by dissonant cluster chords. And finally in “Jack’s Song,” Jackie sings a duet together with the ghostly voice of JFK. He asks for forgiveness, as fragments of “Jackie’s Song” are repeated in an ostinato bass line.

The opera concludes with a folk guitar strumming vigorously, while Jackie and the chorus sing “The New Frontier is Here.” But is it really here? A downward glissando breaks the spell, and the solo cello returns one last time, plaintively, prophetically.

Jackie is a complex figure in the opera, continually reflecting on her conversion into an American icon. So also, this opera reflects on the operatic medium itself, as a living form rediscovered and revived within an American context.

I composed the music for Jackie O from September 1995 to February 1997 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The work is scored for piccolo/flute, oboe/English horn, clarinet/bass clarinet, tenor/alto/soprano saxophone, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone/euphonium, tuba, harp, acoustic guitar, synthesizer/piano, percussion and strings.

I would like to thank members of the Opera Studios at the Houston Grand Opera and the University of Michigan School of Music, and also sopranos Lisa Bielawa, Elizabeth Eshleman, Dora Ornstein, and Joan Morris. I thank composers William Bolcom and John Harbison for their encouragement and am grateful for support from the Guggenheim Foundation and the University of Michigan for the completion of this project.

–Michael Daugherty


UM Frost’s ‘Jackie O’ is a wild, satisfying ride

Michael Daugherty’s Jackie O is a postmodern synthesis of American popular culture and avant-garde modernism. The University of Miami Frost Opera Theater’s production of Daugherty’s opera, which opened Thursday at Gusman Concert Hall, is brilliantly realized and arrestingly staged.

Daugherty has received widespread attention for his instrumental scores based on such American pop culture icons as Superman and Elvis Presley, but he has a more reflective side as well. His luminous song cycle Labyrinth of Love, settings of eight love poems spanning several centuries, was a highlight of last fall’s Festival Miami. Daugherty’s 1997 opera mixes the composer’s duo artistic impulses in an original and constantly surprising manner.

Rather than a linear biographical narrative, the opera presents events in the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the context of the cultural zeitgeist of the 1960s. Such tabloid figures as Andy Warhol, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly and Maria Callas (Aristotle Onassis’ former lover) are cast in imaginary encounters and conversations with the heroine. Wayne Koestenbaum has created a stunningly creative libretto, an amalgam of Gertrude Stein and Bertolt Brecht, replete with irony, sarcasm and pathos.

Daugherty’s multilayered score matches Koestenbaum’s wild creative flights. The elegiac solo cello theme that opens and closes the score is a leitmotif for the heroine. This dark suggestion of tragedy is juxtaposed against the pop sensibility of the opening scene, a party of New York’s cultural glitterati at Warhol’s loft.

Onassis’ seduction tango has more than a touch of Greek folk flavoring, and his alcoholic anthem It’s Never Too Late for a Stiff Drink is unabashed ’60s rock. Gradually the music becomes more austere, as with the Flame Duet between Jackie and Callas, bracing in its astringent harmonics. Only I Will Meet You at the Lido, a catchy duet for Callas and Onassis, seems miscalculated, delaying the climactic scenes for a production number.

Ben Krywosz’s multimedia production, enhanced by projections of color patterns and news headlines and photos of Jackie throughout her life, is marvelously vibrant and effective, and Anne Kuite’s high-energy choreography was brilliantly executed by the principals and ensemble. Johnson’s leadership of Daugherty’s complex brew is masterful, the Frost Symphony Orchestra members’ playing both subtle and jolting in leaping rhythms and harmonics.

On opening night of this double-cast production, Vindhya Khare was every inch the heroine, exuding elegance, glamour and mystery. Her rich, agile soprano was radiant in duet with the Callas of Mia Rojas. Rojas cut a tragic figure as the jilted diva, with a dark timbre and potent dramatic projection. Max Moreno was an arrogant Onassis with a virile baritone to match, his low tones chilling as he uttered “Jackie, you are the Angel of Death” after hearing that his son has died.

Carl Du Pont’s mellow baritone encompassed Warhol’s Artist Credo, and Hilary Trumpler assayed Liz Taylor’s bluesy cadenzas brilliantly. Jennifer Voigt’s light soprano and beauty made Grace Kelly’s party appearance more than a cameo. Special kudos for Ryan P. Townsend’s clear, high tenor as the offstage voice of Kennedy asking Jackie’s forgiveness.

This uniquely entertaining and emotionally powerful work offers a compelling evening of music theater and a high water mark for Frost Opera Theater and its director Alan Johnson.