Long Leaf Opera opened its 2003-4 season on October 3 with a very modern score, Michael Daugherty's (b.1954) Jackie O. The performance was the first in the recently-renovated main hall of the Carolina Theatre, where extensive work was done to rigging and backstage. The opera, with libretto by Wayne Koestenbaum, focuses on the period in the life of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, when she was finally able to emerge from mourning and the devastation of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and when she met and subsequently married Aristotle Onassis. The main characters are all real persons, and all are icons just as Jackie is, but the incidents are imagined.
The work is divided into two acts, the first taking place in 1968 entirely in Andy Warhol's (tenor Charles Staunton) studio, known as "The Factory," for one of his famous - or should I write infamous - parties, er... happenings. Guests include Elizabeth Taylor (soprano Terry Rhodes), Grace Kelly (mezzo Ellen Williams), Onassis (baritone Rick Piersall) and, arriving last, Maria Callas (mezzo Caryl Thomason Price). Jackie (soprano Elizabeth Grayson) is eagerly awaited at the outset by all who know that this will be her first public social appearance since Jack's death; she ultimately arrives after everyone else except for Callas. A telephone call announcing the assassination of Robert Kennedy brings the party to a quick and solemn conclusion. The second act, which takes place about a year later, is subdivided into two scenes, the first taking place on Ari's yacht, the "Christina," and the second on the Greek island of Skorpios, a scene during which Jackie communes with Jack (tenor William Chamberlain), forgives him for his infidelities and receives his release. She returns to the USA in the final scene with music set to the famous "Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country" line. The staging of this scene struck me as too influenced by post 9/11 imagery and hence anachronistic, but this is a minor complaint except for the fact that it somewhat undercut the earlier felicities of the production.
The music ranges from blues to lounge to jazz to pop to contemporary operatic in a veritable potpourri, and yet it flows seamlessly from one to the other; there is so much there that nothing surprises or seems dissonant or out of place, even though it is not, for the most part, what you expect to encounter on the operatic stage. Seeing these icons in the somewhat outlandish settings and situations demands a real suspension of disbelief, but don't many operas in the standard repertoire? This reviewer had no difficulty getting in tune with the production. And an outstanding one it was in so very many ways. For starters, there were the costumes, which suited the characters to a T and were gorgeous to boot. Artistic Director Randolph Umberger confided to me that every one had been purchased in a thrift shop, the best find being Callas' stunning black dress worn in Act II, Scene 2, picked up for $5 with its original price tag of $1,000 still on it! Thrift store shopping was not the only thing bare bones about the production, for the staging was also stripped down with no sets, only a couple of scrims - the theatre's brick rear wall served as the backdrop for the "Factory" party scene - and few props, yet they were equally effective and appropriate.
The singing was excellent throughout. Appropriately, Grayson's was the most impressive and most varied in nuance, but the other roles demanded less in interpretive emotional range. As a runner up for singing prize, I would have to cite Price's Callas, but Rhodes' Taylor and Williams' Kelly were also fine. The male principals were less impressive, but they also had much smaller roles so it is unfair to judge. Diction was good throughout. What impressed me the most was the ability of each of the singers to epitomize the character of the historical personage represented. The characterizations were, of necessity in such a piece, stereotypical in nature, but the singers succeeded in catching the historical figures' appearance, poses, and public persona remarkably well. Without this aspect being spot on, the suspension of disbelief would probably have been impossible, and the work would have turned into a pastiche. It never even bordered on doing so. The orchestra, under the baton of Benjamin Keaton, was also the best ever, and the instrumentation is as wide-ranging as the musical styles, including a guitar strummed by CVNC colleague Jeffrey Rossman. The keyboards were handled by Deborah Hollis, who served likewise in an earlier production last year covered by this reviewer. Cellist Clark Wang did a fine job with the opening and concluding solo.
The printed program topped all previous ones as well, giving an excellent brief synopsis of the plot and a "Who's Who in the Story" as well as bios of all the performers and the directors in a small glossy paper booklet that included a reproduction of a portion of Warhol's famous portrait of Jackie O. on the cover.
This reviewer has been an unabashed supporter of Long Leaf Opera's efforts from its inception, having missed only one of the company's productions, last spring's "American Songbook." Admirable efforts notwithstanding, its work has had its ups and downs, many of the latter being the result of the shoestring budgets, of course. This production scored a real hit and showed that the company has truly come of age as it enters its fifth season. The performance was well attended, but it would have been great if it could have scored the full house that it deserved.