Grief is the word that came to mind during the world premiere of composer Joshua Bornfield and librettist Caitlin Vincent’s original opera, Camelot Requiem. In May of 2013, the Spire Series at the First Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland, observed the fiftieth anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy by presenting a work dealing with the 1963 assassination. The librettist is the Artistic Director of The Figaro Project, a group formed to promote local artists and affordable opera. The two-act work, which incorporates a Requiem Mass, was performed with a six-piece orchestra from the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University School of Music was conducted by Blair Skinner. The cast, also from Peabody, included: Caitlin Vincent as Jacqueline Kennedy, Nathan Wyatt as Robert Kennedy, Alex Rosen as Lyndon Johnson, Lisa Perry as Lady Bird Johnson, Jeremy Hirsch as Dr. Burkley, Kate Jackman as Nurse Hutton, and Stephen Campbell as the Reverend Oscar L. Huber.
The opera depicted the horror of the time with a powerful musical performance punctuated with dissonance and silence. Taylor Boykins, a first year Peabody student who was at the performance, said, “The text is raw - kind of graphic.” The opening chords sent shivers down my spine when they combined with the ringing of bells and chanting. As Jacqueline Kennedy, Vincent was costumed in a bright pink suit, matching pillbox hat and bloodstained white gloves. With her dark hair and attractive demeanor, she resembled the first lady as her lush sound soared above the musical depiction of the events that took place at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Texas and the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. Bornfield had unleashed his composition on a potent libretto.
Through the thunderous performances of Wyatt as Robert F. Kennedy and Rosen as L. B. J., the audience got a glimpse of the transfer of presidential power in the midst of the nation’s emotional shock following the assassination. Andrew Posner, 20, an undergraduate composition student of at Peabody said that Bornfield’s style was unique and his orchestration fantastic. Vincent drafted the libretto in October 2011 from three poems she had written from Mrs. Kennedy’s perspective on the day of her husband’s death. She developed one of them, entitled Rose, into a melancholy aria. To obtain her material, she researched oral interviews, Lady Bird’s personal diary and condolence letters sent to Mrs. Kennedy. When operagoers arrived at the church and they were handed programs and reproductions of sympathy notes sent to Mrs. Kennedy from around the world.
While the action moved on and off the church altar, the deliberate cacophony, bursting harmonies, and the magnificent baritone voice of Wyatt as RFK convinced the audience that a “New Frontier” was imminent. Perry as Lady Bird offered relief from the tension by infusing the opera with a warm and casual 1970’s song. Conductor Skinner, a DMA candidate at the Peabody, said that when you have a piece of music that no one has heard before and ten individual voices, each of which does something individualistic, the process is grueling but the hard work makes the effort extremely rewarding. Jackman as Nurse Patricia Hutton expressed emotional intensity with the weight of her soothing mezzo-soprano voice. As Mrs. Kennedy, Vincent sang that she would like to wake up from this nightmare. Her sorrow came across to the audience when she sang that she would rather die with her Jack than live without him. The final Lux Aeterna, sung by the cast from the balcony to Mrs. Kennedy who was standing below, left audience feeling comforted by angels.
Maureen L. Mitchell