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Posts Tagged ‘richard nixon

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.”


Written by suziparker1313

March 8, 2011 at 10:52 pm

On the Anniversary of Nixon’s Resignation: An Ode to Martha Mitchell

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I was a political geek at an early age, thanks to Richard M. Nixon.

One of my earliest memories is twirling around the house at age 3 wearing a floppy white hat with “Nixon” stamped in red, white and blue. I didn’t know a Republican from a Democrat. I only knew he was president and one of my father’s friends had given me the hat during Nixon’s re-election campaign in 1972.

That hat, which got lost in the trash bags of time, married me to Nixon, who resigned 36 years ago today from the White House. My mom would read the newspaper to me every afternoon – national news, editorials, cartoons, Dear Abby. I didn’t know Watergate from a water moccasin, but I knew Nixon’s name. So I listened.

Watergate dominated the airwaves the summer I was 4, and the Washington drama washed away my mom’s and my daily dish of “All My Children.” Instead, men in suits took over and I was mesmerized. Geekingly so.

Maybe the absorption also had to do with the deep connection between my hometown and Watergate. John N. Mitchell, Nixon’s former attorney general who took over the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, was married to colorful, outspoken Martha Mitchell.

She was born in the same Southern city as I was: Pine Bluff, Ark. During the 1970s, it seemed the entire town whispered her name – already a household one because of television and magazine cover appearances – as if she was a local debutante immersed in a country club scandal. Like Nixon, she, too, became a mythical figure to me living in a fabled land called Washington. Watergate was my bedtime story.

I didn’t understand the ins and outs of the scandal by any stretch. People were just in trouble, including the president whose name was on that floppy hat that perched on top of a doll most days.

Martha asked Nixon to resign long before it became popular. She was calling newspaper reporters, including the legendary Helen Thomas, and some who worked at my hometown paper, the “Pine Bluff Commercial,” whispering Watergate rumors in the middle of the night. She lost her marriage because of her whistleblower mouth. Ooh, a troublemaker. I loved her. I wanted to know more about her.

My parents knew the location of the house where the spitfire blonde Martha was born and drove me past the blue Victorian house where she had grown up. Watergate seemed all the more real. Someone who had lived in that house had landed in the middle of history. My parents knew people who were friends or relatives to her, and often said “So-in-so knows her.” I hoped one day I would.

When Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974, I sat in front of the television watching as if it was a Scooby Doo cartoon. Nixon out, Ford in. It was that quick. I was hooked on the strange world of politics. While my friends ordered Shaun Cassidy posters from Scholastic, I checked off books about Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Benjamin Franklin and Betsy Ross on the order form.

On Memorial Day weekend in 1976, Martha Mitchell died from multiple myeloma. I remember so clearly my mother stating matter-of-factly, “Nixon killed her.” My mom explained that there was a mysterious conspiracy theory surrounding her death. The Nixon Administration wanted Mitchell quiet and they had injected her with tranquilizers in California, Mitchell told reporters.

It seemed everyone in her hometown believed that Nixon, the CIA, some shadowy government agency killed her. For several years, her death was debated under hair dryers in Pine Bluff beauty shops. The rumors continued, especially after Nixon said, during an interview with David Frost in September 1977, that “if it hadn’t been for Martha Mitchell, there’d have been no Watergate.” And he would have still had a political career.

Statewide television aired Martha’s funeral procession. Pine Bluff – forever and always a Southern gossipy town – wondered for months who had sent a floral spray of white chrysanthemums that said “Martha Was Right.” The funeral home and florist refused to say. Soon after Martha died, my parents, at my request, took me to the historic cemetery – Bellwood – where she was buried. I’m not sure what I thought at the time, but it felt historic and important.

The “Pine Bluff Commercial” published an editorial the day after Martha died about Southern women. The author wrote, “They don’t stay up on a pedestal, not in a crisis. When the menfolk are defeated or cowed, they come down to do battle.” The writer added, “It can be a lonely road.”

At least for Martha, she got her own road. The interstate that ran behind my suburban neighborhood was renamed the Martha Mitchell Expressway. In downtown Pine Bluff, a bronze bust of “the heroine of Watergate” was erected. It never failed that I didn’t pay homage to it out the car window whenever we drove past. For me, living in this world, it was impossible to escape Watergate long after its era had vanished. Even now, I wonder who sent that funeral spray.

Written by suziparker1313

March 7, 2011 at 5:14 pm