The Moon for Arabella
An appreciation of the opera JFK
Clara, a maid at the Hotel Texas, is a character in JFK who in life we might overlook or quickly forget as she goes about her daily work—perhaps like the usher who may have handed you this booklet. She is present, but not fully known, just as there are many secreted aspects to people we routinely encounter. In Clara’s case, she is also Clotho, the spinner in ancient Greek mythology who unspools the thread of mortal life, and she is Clara Harris, who joined her fiancé, Henry Rathbone, at Ford’s Theater to enjoy the comedy “Our American Cousin” the night Lincoln was shot. This is the intensified world of opera, but it is not uncommon for a person we glimpse to evoke different times and places: a stranger who reminds us of someone we long to see again, a painting that enchanted us, or a dream that we cannot forget. The character Rathbone, who is wounded at Ford’s Theater, is also a Secret Service agent protecting President John F. Kennedy during his November 22, 1963 visit to Fort Worth, and he is the second Fate, Lachesis, who measures the allotted length of life’s thread.
Near the beginning of JFK, Clara sings “the largest wound: a blank page, a story never told,” in an aria that feels curtailed (and that is evoked near the end of the opera when Rathbone sings “a day like any day, the largest wound”). Clara’s melody wants to soar, but, like a bird attached to its perch by a leash, it cannot take flight. This is the mood of the opera, which in its design and details is mysteriously uplifted and then halted.
Shortly before Clara sings “The largest wound,” Mrs. Kennedy, Jackie, sings about time in the hotel suite she and the President share: “midnight is the loneliest hour. In the air is the rhythm of grandfather clocks patiently keeping track of our lost minutes.” Jackie’s aria disconnects time from celestial regularity and from the utility of the clock face. Her emotion exposes the inner mechanism, wheels of different sizes turning inexorably at different rates, but now connected to a very different world; real in the way a dream feels upon waking, but unmeasurable and uncoordinated with anything outside itself. The aria—the clockwork movement—brings to mind a distinction between Shakespearian and Greek tragedy: in the former, one might act differently; in the latter, one cannot alter fate.
As a story, JFK encompasses the final day of President Kennedy’s life, especially his last night in Fort Worth. Fort Worth Opera (along with Opéra de Montréal and American Lyric Theater) commissioned the work, celebrating the 70th anniversary of Fort Worth Opera and the 10th anniversary of its opera festival. The opera transmutes an historical event that took place in Fort Worth—the President and First Lady stayed overnight in a hotel room decorated with artworks lent by local collectors—with an awareness of underlying sentiments that only music can convey.
The selection in April 2012 of David T. Little, a composer recognized for socially-engaged compositions, and Royce Vavrek, a librettist noted for sensitivity to new musical idioms, was prescient. They have since been acclaimed for their opera, Dog Days, (FWO, April 24, 2015). Their approach to this Fort Worth history—hyperreality for many—was to write something completely unknowable about people and events that we think we know. One way to grasp JFK is to forget or discount what may seem real: memory, film, history, and rumor. Or perhaps to remember one real thing about Mrs. Kennedy: she comforted the President’s grieving brother, Robert, with a line from the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus that he would repeat in public after the shooting of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
In JFK, Mrs. Kennedy’s grief registers in the dream worlds she shares with her husband. She has no knowledge of the third Fate, Atropos, the cutter of thread, who awaits in Dallas. Time, memory, and the events in Fort Worth distend and return to reality, only to depart from it again. The large operatic forces—orchestra, chorus, and soloists—conjure up these dream worlds using a mix of styles and vernaculars sieved through the adaptability of the classical tradition. In its tie to recent history there are evocations of Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of Us All, Philip Glass’s Satyagraha and John Adams’s Nixon in China in JFK, but these echoes have triggered a snow avalanche of tender reverie and grief, falling, melting, and falling again. What is fact becomes symbolic, and what is symbolic becomes real.
Interwoven into Jackie’s conversations with Jack, such as fantastical remembrances of their first meeting, is the name Arabella. In their fantasy Jack asks Jackie her name: “tell me, oh tell me please…what name would you suggest for me?” Jackie teases as he responds, “you’d risk me assigning you one…Arabella.” This is a name that recurs in the opera. It is the name of their stillborn daughter. Another name recurs, Patrick, their infant son who died. The Texas Boy’s Choir sings: “the eyes of Texas are upon you,” and Jackie sees “in every little boy’s face…little, lost Patrick.” Is the mask of a statesman the same as the mask of a grieving mother who sees in every crowd her own lost children?
The most compassionate moments of the opera involve the loss of children. Hope and aspirations cut short form the irreversible feeling of JFK. Jackie articulates this feeling in her personal ruminations and as such embodies the experience most Americans have of John F. Kennedy. Although I have not written with any specificity about the title character in this opera, the President is not absent. While myth and caprice strain to take flight with his story, they are tethered by the verities of love. Jack’s love for Jackie, made more poignant with their mourning for their dead children—which also foreshadows the mourning of his own death—can be seen as his giving her the moon (how many courting lovers have promised the moon?). As the tender sorrow he shared with her wanes into memory, it casts a sly joyful radiance; a reflection that we might wish to take for direct light. It is not a giant leap to feel that in a poetic but entirely real way—by standing up to Khrushchev, by galvanizing the love and passion of the American people—he also gives us the Moon, for Arabella.