August 31, 1999
Jackie O: The Opera. Music by Michael Daugherty; Libretto by Wayne Koestenbaum. Houston Grand Opera Orchestra, Christopher Larkin, conductor. (ARGO, CD # 455-591-2) 1997.
The subject matter of opera says something (I'm not sure what) about a society. Opera were originally about mythological figures and struggles among the gods. Then came stories about mere earthly royalty, and later, stories that were at least partly about ordinary people, often involving their relations and problems with royalty or nobility. Some modern opera have been based on lives or deeds of the democratic equivalents of royalty (Nixon in China, Malcolm X), but are often about ordinary people in their relations with other ordinary folk (Life with an Idiot), sometimes, but not always, in extraordinary circumstances (Death of Klinghoffer). One can fairly argue that Michael Daugherty's opera Jackie O brings modern opera full circle to the incomprehensible struggles among the modern equivalent of mythological creatures whom mere mortals can view only from a distance, with a combination of awe and disdain.
The true subject of Jackie O is not really Mrs. Onassis or the other celebrities who appear in the opera (Ari, Maria, Grace, Truman, Elizabeth, Andy, etc), but, as with much popular entertainment, celebrity itself. Librettist Wayne Koestenbaum says that the "stylistic model" for the structure of Jackie O was Gertrude Stein's Four Saints in Three Acts, which he calls "a bold, earnest, and ethereal epitome of the anti-naturalistic performance text."
Koestenbaum began the libretto while he was still working on his book "Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon," because he "felt that her story merited operatic treatment." But the opera is not really her story; it is a story of a certain attitude and a certain caste structure in our society, and ultimately about the myths that we as a society have created for ourselves out of the lives of a small group of people who have been anointed with the status of Celebrity.
Jackie O begins with the just-widowed Jacqueline Kennedy's own words, from her televised speech to the nation in December 1963, then jumps forward five years to a "happening" just before her marriage to Aristotle Onassis. The scene has almost nothing to do with the upcoming wedding, however, and all to do with the appearances of various celebrities, including Liz and Grace, and the hoped-for appearance of a long list of others.
Act Two is set a year later, on the Onassis yacht ("decorated with the utmost opulence and vulgarity" according to production notes) moored near a Greek island. In the second scene, when Jackie walks off the ship's gangplank and onto the island of Skorpios, she metaphorically crosses over to the other side of corporeal existence and is able to talk with the long-dead JFK. This aspect of the story, if it can be called that, is the only bit that involves Jacqueline Onassis specifically, and is the "crux of the opera" according to the librettist: "Jackie is caught between the two contrary commands [of] Look Back' and Donít Look Back.' If she looks back, she will be stuck in tragic repetitions. If she doesn't look back, she will remain amnesiac, cold, and mute." Part of the real Jackie O's story that continues to intrigue people is that she never seemed to resolve this dilemma. The opera also leaves the dilemma open, with an ambiguous ending that stops just short of proclaiming the arrival of the New Frontier. In both form and content, Jackie O is an opera for our ambiguous and conflicted times.
You can hear selections from Jackie O on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, September 2, at 7:30 PM as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.
-- J. Green