A 'Requiem' for JFK assassination

Fifty years later, the assassination of John F. Kennedy remains a galvanizing event, studied by serious scholars and conspiracy fringers with equal intensity.

People who were old enough in 1963 still remember everything about the news flash that something horrible had happened in Dallas to the nation's youthful president.


Those born much later may also find themselves haunted by this dark history. They may even create an opera about it.

"Camelot Requiem," which receives its world premiere this weekend with Baltimore area singers and instrumentalists, is the latest and perhaps most ambitious undertaking to date of the Figaro Project, a DIY organization founded by soprano Caitlin Vincent in 2009.


Vincent started collaborating with fellow Peabody Institute alum, composer Joshua Bornfield, on the new work in late 2011. The cast of 10 features Peabody grads and a few current students at the conservatory, all donating their services, for this venture, which is being presented as part of the Spire Series at First & Franklin Presbyterian Church.

"I've always been very interested in the Kennedy myth and, especially, Jackie," Vincent, 28, said. "Much has been written about every angle of the assassination, but I wanted to get past the nuts and bolts, the grassy knoll and all of that. I was fascinated with the people who were facing such a stressful situation right after the assassination."

This fascination led Vincent to the idea of a two-act opera set in two different waiting rooms, one at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, where Kennedy was taken after the shooting; the other, 10 hours later, at Bethesda Naval Hospital outside of Washington, where the autopsy was performed on the slain leader.

"Camelot Requiem" — portions of the traditional Requiem Mass for the Dead are interwoven through the opera — centers around anxious people who gathered in one or both of those waiting rooms, including the president's widow, Lyndon Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson, Bobby Kennedy and three secretaries.

"Those closest to the president had to keep it all together," Vincent said. They were trying to get over their grief and focus on what they had to do next in another New Frontier — the world without JFK."

Vincent's collaborator found this waiting room setting an inspired way of structuring the work.

"Most operas lead toward some chaotic event," Bornfield, 32, said. "In our opera, the central event has already happened."

For "Camelot Requiem," which lasts about 90 minutes and is scored for a small chamber ensemble, the composer applied a fundamentally tonal style that he described as "complex, but not intimidating."


There are allusions to pop music of the 1960s, especially when it comes to the trio of secretaries, who have been given passages of tight harmony that may suggest doo wop and Motown.

"The hardest part was writing music for people everyone knows, people everyone has very strong feelings about," Bornfield said. "One of the most challenging scenes was where Jackie tells what it was like to be sitting in the car when the shots rang out. I wanted the music to allow us to enter into her emotional state."

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Although the Figaro Project "always operates on a shoe string," Vincent said, the premiere production will be staged and costumed.

For Bornfield, the project offers an opportunity to examine a pivotal chapter of history.

"The 1960s were such a fascinating time — three big assassinations; the fight for civil rights; the way we turned [the Kennedys] into celebrities, rather than just political leaders," Bornfield said. "Why not use art to reflect on this?"

Added Vincent: "Now that we're coming up on the 50th anniversary of the assassination, it is interesting to think what has changed, and what has not changed, in those 50 years."


If you go

"Camelot Requiem" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at First & Franklin Presbyterian Church, 210 W. Madison St. Tickets are $5 to $15. Go to