Daugherty Jackie O
“Here is the news, brought to you in heroic couplets…by the opera composer!” was how The Independent once greeted the late 1980s/’90s phenomenon of operas whose characters stepped straight out of the headlines – and many of whose real-life equivalents could actually have attended performances. Richly launched by Alice Goodman’s brilliant (because brilliantly neutral) libretto for John Adams about President Nixon’s 1972 visit to Mao Tse-tung’s China, the sequence of largely American works took in subjects as diverse as Harvey Milk, the Arab-Israeli conflicts and Willy Brandt’s atonement for German war crimes in Warsaw.
Daugherty’s 1997 Jackie O(nassis), with a smart, intentionally self-conscious libretto by poet/essayist Wayne Koestenbaum, takes its subject from the 1960s. It also moves this “real persons” genre more into the realm of Offenbach’s takes on Second Empire France. Liz Taylor and Princess Grace appear as frustrated, over-idolised media stars – but their incarnations, like Aristotle Onassis’s Rat Pack songs and patter here, are about as true to life as La belle Hélène’s Helen and Menelaus. The mix of TV host and “happenings” organiser who brings the widowed Jackie Kennedy back to society in Act 1 is Andy Warhol (most precisely taken here by Paul Carey Jones) – a neat choice because of his obsession with portraying people by image only. The action climaxes on a fact-based fictional meeting in Act 2 between Jackie and Maria Callas, Onassis’s two famous lovers, who find a freedom from their men in art, patriotism and confession. This, and its segue into Jackie’s conversation with the voice of JFK and her intention in the finale to return to the “new frontier” in America, is both genuinely moving and justifies the allusions to the Orpheus story in Koestenbaum’s notes.
Commentators have lined up a list of obvious influences (I would rather call them parody/borrowings) on Daugherty’s music – Hair, Sondheim, Nelson Riddle, Earth Wind and Fire. But, hey guys, this ain’t grand opera (except when it’s deliberately making fun), it’s 100 per cent relevant to the story and none of it makes the cunningly paced score thin or superficial. Because this piece is music-theatre first and foremost, I would recommend this filming of a recent joint Bologna/Lugo di Romagna production as a better starting-point to the piece than Argo’s premiere sound recording. The projection of a huge film of 9/11 at the end (Jackie’s return) might be an emotional link too far – but the staging overall is impressively marshalled and restrained.