JFK: The Opera: Premiere bringing in community

🕐 6 min read


April 23, May 1 and May 7


The opera’s not over until … well, in this case, it doesn’t begin until the symposiums are over.

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As the Fort Worth Opera embarks on the final few months before it unveils its high-profile, highly-anticipated, full-scale opera JFK, it is using the opportunity to involve the whole community in a series of symposiums related to John F. Kennedy’s presidency – JFK: Five Decades of Progress.

“Fort Worth Opera prides itself on being an innovative leader on the stage, but with JFK: Five Decades of Progress, we hope to be a leader in the community as well, bringing relevant discussions to North Texas,” said Darren K. Woods, general manager of the Fort Worth Opera. “It is my belief that art isn’t just a form of entertainment, but a spark meant to ignite conversation and create change.”

The discussions won’t be about subjects withering in the dustbin of history, but about topics that remain equally relevant – and maybe more so – today, such as civil rights, immigration, technology and Cuba. Involving the community with the production won’t all be so serious. Fort Worth Opera also reached out to Proper Bar on Magnolia to design a specially-curated drink modeled on President Kennedy’s favorite daiquiri.

For the opera, the idea of public forums meant a shift in how the organization approaches its role in the community, he said.

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“We needed to immerse ourselves in the community and to do that we needed to be where the community is, instead of having them come to the opera house and say, ‘We’ll show you what you need to see or what you need to hear,’” Woods said. “It’s sort of a whole DNA shift. We are a performing arts organization, but we want to be seen as a community asset, a community service provider and as a community member. To do that, we needed to be out there.”

For Devoyd Jennings, president and CEO of the Fort Worth Metropolitan Black Chamber of Commerce and a speaker on the civil rights panel, the discussions are of key importance to all of Fort Worth.

“Everybody understood the role JFK played in the civil rights movement back in the day,” he said. “My role will be as a product of the time to communicate the benefits of the movement.”

For Jennings, it is also personal. He was a high school student at I.M. Terrell in November 1963 and went downtown to watch Kennedy speak to the crowd outside the then-Hotel Texas. It was a big deal to see a president up close then, he said. But things quickly changed.

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“I got back home from being downtown and got ready to go to school and heard he had been shot,” he said. “It was a sad occasion knowing what he meant to us.”

The civil rights discussion will be a homecoming of sorts for Jennings and many others who lived and worked in Fort Worth during the civil rights era.

“We were speaking with Mr. Jennings about the symposium and he mentioned that I.M. Terrell would be available again because it will be a high school again soon,” said Hannah Guinn, newly appointed managing director for the Fort Worth Opera. “It’s great timing for this.”

Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy arrived in Fort Worth as part of a political visit to Texas in November 1963, and the couple spent their last night together at the Hotel Texas. Kennedy gave his last speech in front of the hotel on the morning of Nov. 22, just hours before he was assassinated in Dallas. A statue to Kennedy now graces the spot where he made his speech.

JFK is an opera about that final night and subsequent morning in Fort Worth. The opera was commissioned by the Fort Worth Opera and is authored by Royce Vavrek, libretto, and David T. Little, music. The opera imagines the private hours spent both asleep and sleepless by what was then – and likely still – America’s most glamorous political couple in their suite at the Hotel Texas. Major supporters include The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and OPERA America’s The Opera Fund.

The two composers, Vavrek and Little, have already had one major success, with the well-received Dog Days, an opera based on a short story by Judy Budnitz that was performed by the Fort Worth Opera in 2015.

The work is highly-anticipated in the opera world. The American Lyric Theater, which is developing the score in partnership with the Fort Worth Opera, presented a workshop performance of the opera-in-progress at Merkin Concert Hall in 2014. There was a packed house for the performance that day, Woods noted, even in the middle of a pouring rainstorm.

“The piece has tremendous importance for Fort Worth,” said Marc A. Scorca, president and CEO of OPERA America, an organization that supports opera around the country.

“Before I heard about plans for this opera, I didn’t know JFK spent his last night at a hotel in Fort Worth,” he said. “This puts Fort Worth on the map for this historical moment and to have it premiere there as well only adds to it.”

But the spotlight won’t only be on the stage, the city will also take a starring role.

Fort Worth officials are behind the opera as well, giving the opera company a special one-year grant of $25,000 from the city of Fort Worth’s Promotion and Development Fund.

“With the opera and the educational programs leading to next spring, Darren Woods is turning a sensitive subject into a bold remembrance of the optimism the Kennedys brought with them to Texas,” said Bob Jameson, CEO of the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Fort Worth arts and culture have been a hallmark of the city for more than 100 years, and they are a significant reason that our number of visitors continues to grow.”


Taking the stage

The Fort Worth Opera has scheduled a six-month long community conversation series titled JFK: 5 Decades of Progress that will culminate in the world-premiere opera, JFK. Beginning in October 2015 and culminating in the world premiere-, the series will include five events focused on topics associated with the presidency of John F. Kennedy.

The opera has partnered with groups around the area for the programs, including The Sixth Floor Museum, KERA, Fort Worth Metropolitan Black Chamber of Commerce, Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and several others to develop the panel discussions. Other programs may be announced soon.

Here’s a look at the current lineup:

• Space Race: Advances in U.S. Science- and Transportation Technology

Thursday, Oct. 22

6:30 pm – 8:00 pm

University of Texas at Arlington

Sponsored by Hillwood Properties

This program will discuss the role of NASA and space technology over the past 50 years since JFK’s presidency. The special guest speaker is Dr. Wendell Mendell, retired NASA scientist and instructor at International Space University.

• Civil Rights in Modern America

Wednesday, Nov. 18

6:30 pm – 8:00 pm

The Potter’s House (Dallas)

• Civil Rights in Modern America

Thursday, Nov. 19

6:30 pm – 8:00 pm.

I.M.Terrell High School Auditorium

A panel composed of leaders from the African American community and presidential scholars will discuss the evolution of civil rights from JFK’s presidency to the present.

• Cuba and Immigration

Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016

6:30 pm – 8:00 pm

TCC Trinity River Campus. Energy Auditorium

Sponsored by Juana-Rosa Daniell and Ran Daniell

Panelists, including Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, will discuss JFK’s: position on Cuba, immigration and how those topics continue to resonate today.

For reservations contact 817-288-1229 or online at www.fwopera.org/events.

Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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