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Politics, Pop Culture and Ponderings

Musical Portrait of a President: Bill Clinton’s Young Life Inspires Opera

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Bill Clinton’s life has already been a soap opera.

Enter Bonnie Montgomery, a native Arkansan who has composed “Billy Blythe,” an opera in the traditional vein and based on the life of a teenage Clinton. The opera explores a summer day in 1959 in Hot Springs, Ark., with a young Clinton who lives with his colorful mother, Virginia, and his abusive stepfather, Roger Clinton.

Montgomery, 31, composed the music for the 90 minute opera with her long-time college friend, Brittany Barber, who wrote the lyrics. Four scenes of the opera recently debuted in the grand historic ballroom of Little Rock’s Women’s City Club.

Montgomery named the opera for the original last name of Clinton and his biological father, Bill Blythe, who died three months before the future president was born in 1946. Clinton went by the name until he was a teenager when he legally took his stepfather’s surname, although Roger Clinton never adopted him.

President Clinton and his mother, Virginia KelleyFour years ago, Montgomery, a professional musician, was inspired to write the opera while reading Clinton’s autobiography, “My Life.” Chapter Six moved her toward the piano.

In that chapter, Clinton begins: “I don’t know how Mother handled it all as well as she did. Every morning no matter what had happened the night before, she got up and put her game face on. And what a face it was. From the time she came back home from New Orleans, when I could get up early enough, I loved sitting on the floor of the bathroom and watching her put makeup on that beautiful face.”

Montgomery says that passage set her imagination on fire.

“It appeared to me on the stage with the lights, the set, the whole thing,” Montgomery says. “His life’s story is full of action and exaggerated Southern characters. It’s an amazing story that a man can come from where he came from and become the president. His personality is mythical and where he came from (Hot Springs) provides the perfect mythical backdrop.”

During the 1950s when Clinton lived in Hot Springs, the town, known internationally for its heated natural spring water, was a gambling haven for the rich and famous. Virginia didn’t shy away from gambling and she frequently visited the swanky nightclubs and local race track.

Virginia fortifies the opera as the central character in Clinton’s life. She molded her son – for better or worse – into the man he became, says Montgomery, who studied Virginia Clinton Kelley’s 1994 book, “Leading With My Heart” as she wrote the opera’s music.

Four scenes of the opera featured Virginia and Roger singing about their life in New Orleans in between morning kisses on a sofa. Another scene features the young Clinton, outside of a movie theater in downtown Hot Springs, singing about Gary Cooper’s “High Noon,” one of Clinton’s all-time favorite movies. Clinton also battles his stepfather to protect his mother in one high-octane scene near the opera’s end.

But the highlight of the opera is “Virginia’s Aria” when Virginia sings a lamented love note about Clinton’s father, Bill. In that song, Virginia compares Clinton to his biological father and highlights all the positives about her late husband. She sings as she puts on make-up, celebrating the benefits of lipstick and powder in attracting a man and holding back the cruelty of age.

Bill Clinton is also a natural subject for a native Arkansan like Montgomery.

Nearly every Arkansan of a certain age has a story to tell about him, and Montgomery is no different. She was in junior high school when Clinton first ran for president. She recalls putting a bumper sticker across her jeans to show her support of Clinton. “The first time I saw him was when I was a pee-wee cheerleader,” Montgomery says. “I was in the White County Fair parade on a float and he came to the parade. I just really remember he was really tall, friendly and had big hands.”

When she ran into Clinton last year in a hotel lobby in Little Rock., she told him about the project and he wished her luck. And at a Democratic event during the midterm campaign season, Montgomery presented him with a packet about the opera. So far, he hasn’t commented on it.

Montgomery says Clinton’s story is classically Southern and one that people could relate to even if Clinton had not been president. But her goal was to show some of the trials and tribulations that he battled as a young man. Those, she said, helped him to achieve the American dream.

Montgomery used her expertise in American art song and folk music to develop the opera. She wanted it to highlight the traditional characteristics of opera, with a Southern twist.

“Arkansas is so rich in musical heritage with Johnny Cash and the blues that it just made sense to focus on some of the rich music, too,” she says.

Montgomery, who also fronts a country and western band called Montgomery Trucking, assembled a cast from Arkansas, Tennessee, and Colorado. She is looking for an opera house to workshop the entire production.

Following the first performance, Montgomery and Barber hosted an after party at a local bar, ironically called The White Water Tavern (no connection to Clinton’s 1990s era Whitewater land scandals). There, the cast ramped up the opera to a racier version with Montgomery playing the role of Virginia — instead of mezzo-soprano Kelley Ponder who performed in the evening’s first performance.

Similar to the way Clinton took politics to a new generation via MTV back in 1992, Montgomery wants to enlighten a younger generation about opera, which has engaged her since high school. She says that many people have the wrong impression about the musical form. It’s not just boring and stuffy with big voices singing in Italian, Montgomery stresses.

“I want to take opera to a different crowd,” she says. “It would be great if this production could tour like a rock band and reach people who may never hear an opera. People could learn about opera and Bill Clinton at the same time.”

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Written by suziparker1313

March 8, 2011 at 10:52 pm

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