The Song of Jackie O

The most cynical man I ever knew believed in Jackie O. A valet at one of her favorite hotels, he was moved by her silent grace -- evident even in the way she slid in and out of the cars that came for her -- and stunned by the power of her ultra-feminine presence. Years after he'd left his valet job behind, he still visibly softened at the mention of her name.

Glamorous and remote, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis managed to achieve a fame that endeared her to a nation and, in the end, even rivaled that of her husband's. A figure who was revered for her taste and class, Jackie O knew how to create an image and how to perpetuate it -- something she did primarily through photographs. There are volumes of posed sessions from her first wedding, and later, from her life at the White House, and there are also the celebrity shots taken in the years following her failed marriage to Ari Onassis -- Jackie in her oversize sunglasses, Jackie walking down the street of a New England vacation town, smiling ever so slightly, possibly amused by the paparazzi who followed her, reloading madly. It's the language in those images, cultivated and somehow pure, that fascinated writer Wayne Koestenbaum, author of Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon and The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire. So when composer Michael Daugherty asked Koestenbaum to collaborate on an opera, the writer suggested his favorite icon as the subject. What resulted was a jazzy, and occasionally pop-inspired, score paired with a libretto that collapses contemporary opera into theater. Simply titled Jackie O, the new work will premiere this weekend as a Houston Opera Studio production.

Not surprisingly, Jackie is a sympathetic character.
This being opera, however, and opera under the daring wing of Houston Grand Opera, which is the parent company of Houston Opera Studio, the role of Jackie O is sung by young African-American soprano Nicole Heaston. A second-year member of the Studio program, Heaston studied music at the Cincinnati Conservatory and has since gathered a pile of accolades for her silky and well-articulated voice. She appeared with HGO at Lincoln Center in Four Saints in Three Acts and originated a role in last year's Studio production of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The choice to have her sing the part of Jackie was a function of both her range (there are only two sopranos in the Studio) and her theatricality.

Tackling a role as deeply entrenched in popular culture as this one takes the commitment to sift through all the photographs and videos that have commemorated, for the most part, everything but the famous widow's voice. Watching Heaston struggle to come up with a believable speaking voice for the character in an early rehearsal last month captured the tension of this opera -- how does one create the voice of a icon? That difficult question has been tempered by the opera's premise: These aren't the actual '60s celebrities flitting about the stage amidst Brillo pad boxes; they're characters who assume the personas of those celebrities. In other words, the Jackie O who takes the stage isn't meant to be a literal representation of the woman, but rather another character's interpretation of what Jackie O was like.

The opera creates its mythic Jackie in the Act I song "Jackie's Credo." Beginning with a list of things she likes -- "Buttons, ballet, cinema, Diaghilev, Baudelaire" and coyly, "Kenneth's magic with my hair" -- the song captures a sense of what happens when Jackie's smiling public side and her more somber, personal side intersect. Working through the occasionally difficult phrasing with conductor Christopher Larkin, Heaston first tried the list in a serious tone, which ended up being a bit too close to the music. The soprano tried a sophisticated, cultured version next, the Jackie who read philosophy, perhaps -- but that was still too stiff. Finally, she settled on a more playful reading after Larkin reminded her that Jackie is giving the list to Andy Warhol, who is about to paint her portrait.

"It is kind of ominous to look at Jackie O," Heaston said after that rehearsal, her score freshly marked with dozens of careful notations. "A lot of people know about her, but don't really know anything about her." Indeed, the reason Koestenbaum finds the figure of Jackie O such a delightful muse is her mystery. Beyond the libretto, which is perhaps less serious than the music Daugherty created, is a yearning quality to Jackie's songs. She longs for a way out of the spotlight, and thus seems far removed from the Jackie some of us know -- the woman who, however beautifully she presented it as graciousness, did play to the cameras.

Judging from his somewhat elusive program notes, Koestenbaum's aim seems to have been an intellectualized comment on why Jackie has endured as an icon while the reputations of others who surrounded her have been sullied. The complexity of his notion is visible in the opera's Dancing Jackie character. Played by Paul LeGros, a former principal with the Houston Ballet, Dancing Jackie carries the weight of the character's grief, mute and shadowed behind Heaston, while Heaston's Jackie becomes further engaged with the social scene. It's an intriguing idea, and one that's based on a real-life friend of Andy Warhol's who thought, apparently, that he was the reincarnation of Nijinsky.

The most enticing element of Jackie O is not the drama that surrounded the woman, but the opera's element of goofy charm, which indicates Koestenbaum and Daugherty's collaboration will be more a cheeky thing of the moment than a retelling of an American tragedy. And if there is a way to write an opera about an icon who seldom spoke, to make it more fanciful than gloomy seems a wise choice.

The jazz and swing that's so much a part of Daugherty's score is reserved for the characters, a collection of '60s celebrities who swirl around Jackie. Lacking her mute elegance, the rest of the '60s bunch is playful: Liz Taylor sings about being adored by millions; Grace Kelly demurely suggests that by brushing her hair, she'll create an international scene; Truman Capote marches about in leopard print heels. Beyond Jackie O's campy and frolicsome side, and perhaps more important in terms of understanding the title character, Grace Kelly sings about becoming disenchanted with being a star. The underlying premise in Jackie O is the character's desire for privacy and solitude -- a gift that is always tantalizingly out of reach.

Jackie O plays March 14 and 16 at the Cullen Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas Avenue, 546-0200.

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Megan Halverson