NEA Arts Magazine

August 4, 1964

Dallas Symphony Orchestra Pays Tribute to LBJ


Full orchestra on stage in performance with singer performing by the conductor

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Jaap van Zweden, presents the premiere of Steven Stucky's oratorio, August 4, 1964, with soloists, from left, mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor, soprano Laquita Mitchell, tenor Vale Rideout, and baritone Robert Orth. Photo by Jason Kindig

Lyndon Baines Johnson served as president of the United States during a time of cataclysmic change. Sworn in hours after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson went on to lead the country toward equal rights for African Americans and to war in Vietnam. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DSO) commissioned a new oratorio that premiered in September 2008.

Mark Melson, the DSO's vice president for artistic operations, said there was never any question of whether or not there should be a commission, only of who should receive it. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky has Texas connections -- he graduated from Baylor University -- and librettist Gene Scheer had extensive experience in writing historical operas, including Tobias Picker's An American Tragedy. Their names quickly rose to the top of the pile. When it came time to seek funding, applying for an NEA grant was also an obvious option.

"I can't think of any project more deserving for funds from this country's National Endowment for the Arts than a piece by two leading American artists -- a composer and a librettist -- about one of our larger-than-life presidents, a president who presided over one of the most turbulent eras in this country's history," Melson said.

Stucky and Scheer interviewed members of the Johnson administration and spent hours doing research at the Johnson Presidential Library in Austin. Scheer pored over six years' worth of documents and decided to depict just one day of Johnson's presidency: August 4, 1964. On that day, the date that would become the title of the oratorio, authorities in Mississippi discovered the bodies of three slain civil rights workers. In Vietnam, alleged attacks against U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin led President Johnson to order retaliatory air strikes in North Vietnam that same day, starting the war in earnest.

There are just four soloists in the oratorio. A soprano and mezzo-soprano portray the mothers of the civil rights workers, while a tenor sings the role of Robert McNamara, Johnson's secretary of defense. The symphony cast baritone Robert Orth as Johnson, a move that amused opera fans, since Orth frequently sings the role of Richard M. Nixon in John Adams's opera, Nixon in China.

Even though Scheer used the historical record for 85 percent of his libretto, the oratorio hardly has the feel of a history lesson -- Dallas Morning News critic Scott Cantrell praised the oratorio for its "moments of great beauty." Melson was pleased with the press coverage, but even more touched by the response he received from concertgoers. "A lot of our subscribers called or talked to me about this piece," Melson said. "They told me how much they were moved by it, and that's a very good barometer of the power of this piece."