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Well, Why Not 'Jackie O'?

Opera has always considered the inner lives of larger-than-life personalities. The tradition is just carrying on. *** 1/2 "JACKIE O," Michael Daugherty, Argo; **** "DENNIS CLEVELAND," Mikel Rouse, New World; * "GAGARIN," Hakon Berge, Hemera

September 14, 1997|Mark Swed | Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

We've had, since 1980, two operas about Marilyn Monroe (one from Italy, by Lorenzo Ferrero, the other from the U.S., by Ezra Laderman). Nixon, Mao, Kissinger and Leon Klinghoffer have found their way onto the lyric stage with John Adams' help. Patty Hearst, Malcolm X, Harvey Milk, Jack Benny, Charles Manson and Hedda Hopper have all been the subjects of recent opera.

And now three CDs bring the operas "Jackie O," "Gagarin" (the Russian cosmonaut) and "Dennis Cleveland" (a fictional TV talk show host).

This trend to put current events and especially celebrities into opera has been dubbed "CNN opera" by some critics. And there is no doubt that a celebrity-crazed press will respond to such subjects far more readily than it will to a new work on the subject of Ulysses through the ages.

But it can also be argued that opera is simply the most suitable art form to convey the sense of larger-than-life personalities and to consider their inner lives. In fact, that is exactly what opera has always done.

The very first operas written four centuries ago were about Orpheus, the cult singer of Greek legend who still attracts composers (most recently Philip Glass). "Tosca" is about a famous opera singer. Violetta (in Verdi's "La Traviata") and Lulu (in Berg's opera) are deep and important studies of the lives of public women.

And why not? Opera is an art of amplification. While it is possible for music to tell stories, it does so only vaguely and needs help (you have to be told ahead of time what's going on, and then you have to use your imagination to make the narrative work). But song can take you directly into a character's inner life. Others' inspiring visions become our own, as do their frailties, their loves and hatreds and their tragedies.

So it could hardly be otherwise that opera today might be drawn to the public figures of our time, especially now that we have the musical means to do so. Modernism was never the right language--it is hard to imagine, say, a "Bogart" from Boulez or Babbitt. But with eclecticism now reigning in American music, "Jackie O" makes sense. And no one seems better suited to the task than Michael Daugherty, the 43-year-old composer from Iowa.

Daugherty has written exuberant, sassy, irreverent concert works about Elvis, Desi Arnaz, J. Edgar Hoover and Superman. His is an extravagant style: infectious pop melodies that get out of hand; rhythms that go haywire; orchestrations that turn bizarre. But this is still very much a classical music. The compositional techniques are sophisticated, and Daugherty's lighthearted surfaces often cover darker undertones.

"Jackie O"--which was recorded this spring around the time of its premiere by the Houston Opera Studio (a training program of the Houston Grand Opera) and has been rushed out on CD (Argo)--is a Jackie fantasy. For it, Wayne Koestenbaum has fashioned a fantastical libretto that is a little bit Gertrude Stein, a little bit "Nixon in China," and tries hard to be very '70s.

In Act 1, Jackie (Nicole Heaston) meets Ari (Eric Owens) at Andy Warhol's Factory, and leaves with him to see the erotic art film "I Am Curious (Yellow)." In Act 2, Jackie, melancholy on Ari's yacht, sleepwalks across the gangplank onto the island of Skorpios where she meets Maria Callas (Stephanie Novacek) and they have an anti-Ari epiphany, which leads Jackie back to Jack and his inspirational vision of a New Frontier.

Daugherty's music is all over the map, outgoing and pop at one moment, moody and introspective the next, just like Jackie. Her wavering, ambiguous melodic motif, first heard as a solo cello line, is the stark and dark prologue to the opera. It seems to capture something crucial about an ambivalent Jackie poised between an addiction to glamour and a desire to rise above all the superficiality.

There are, given our current obsession with the tragedy of Princess Diana, some absolutely chilling moments in this opera. "I'm tired of being a princess/I'm bored with being exposed by the press," Grace Kelly sings in the opening scene, at a party at the Factory.

Later in the opera, Jackie and Callas are assaulted by the paparazzi and they sing a duet, "Smash His Camera!" It is a transforming moment, and one that only music can handle. A jazz version of Jackie's ambivalent motif banishes Ari and his delicious Dean Martin-style cocktail aria, and celebrates Camelot as the music becomes inspirational.

Not all the music is consistently fine (though most is), and Koestenbaum's libretto can annoy with its coy insider quality. The performance is adequate, although it could use a bit of vocal star power. Still, the overall effect of the opera is profound. And a world troubled over Di and her fate might find in it brutal insight and powerful illumination.

Celebrity is also a fixation in "Dennis Cleveland" (New World). Here Mikel Rouse turns the confessional television talk show into a near religious ritual. And though his means are fairly simple, the result is complex and original.

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