20th century icon set to music in opera ‘Jackie O’

February 19, 1997
  • umichnews@umich.edu

ANN ARBOR—A wry and colorful portrait of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is painted by the music of University of Michigan Prof. Michael Daugherty and the libretto of Wayne Koestenbaum. The two-act chamber opera will have its world premiere March 14 at the Houston Grand Opera’s Houston Opera Studio. The Banff Centre for the Arts will stage “Jackie O” in early August at the Banff Arts Festival I in Alberta, Canada.

Daugherty and Koestenbaum, considered two of America’s leading interpreters of popular culture, have concocted an insightful but quirky portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis that comments on America’s fascination with this cultural icon.

“While drawing on historical events, the action of the opera is largely imaginary and metaphorical,” says Daugherty, an associate professor of composition at U-M’s School of Music. “I envision this opera as a commentary on high life in the late sixties, and my music encompasses a wide range of styles associated with the American pop scene and the musical conventions of grand opera.”

Opening with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ actual voice, “Jackie O” takes opera-goers through a dizzying journey of facts and fancies concerning Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The opera opens at a 1968, avant-garde New York “happening,” where celebrities such as Liz Taylor and Princess Grace mingle among the go-go-dancers and paparazzi. Jackie, re-entering society after her self-imposed isolation following President Kennedy’s assassination, makes a grand entrance into the party where she has her picture painted by Andy Warhol. She is charmed by Aristotle Onassis, who abandons his date, Maria Callas, to serenade Jackie with song. The first act ends with the new couple leaving the party together, with the intention of seeing the art-house movie, “I am Curious (Yellow).” But a telephone call carrying tragic news of another assassination sends Jackie across the Atlantic to escape America and all its suffocating influences. The paparazzo documents her every move.

Act two opens one year after Jackie and Aristotle’s marriage. The scene shifts to a yacht, the Christina, anchored at the Greek island Skorpios, where, despite the opulence and seeming good cheer, Jackie finds herself increasingly melancholy and given to trances. Callas seeks a reunion with Onassis and the two meet at the Lido, a swank hangout. In a trance, Jackie leaves the ship and goes to the island where she encounters Maria and the paparazzo. The women reconcile, and together smash the paparazzo’s camera. Jackie hears and converses with the off- stage voice of JFK. Transfigured, she decides to return to America.

“Just as Jackie is a complex figure, continually reflecting on her conversion into an American icon,” Daugherty says, “my opera reflects on the operatic medium itself, as a living art form rediscovered and revived within an American context.”

Daugherty’s music features a 20-piece orchestra that the composer defines as a “rock orchestra/jazz orchestra” with guitar, synthesizer and a mixture of percussion instruments, all to present what Daugherty calls “opera and Greek music in the Daugherty style.”

Daugherty frequently finds musical inspiration in folklore, fables, and historical figures. Among his compositions are “Sing Sing: J. Edgar Hoover,” “Elvis Everywhere,” “Desi” (a Latin big band tribute to Ricky Ricardo from television’s “I Love Lucy”), “Dead Elvis,” “Lounge Lizard,” (an homage to cocktail pianists for two pianos and percussion) and the five-movement Superman- inspired “Metropolis Symphony,” released in January 1997 and currently holding position 18 on the classical charts.

Prof. Michael DaughertyBanff Centre for the Arts