Folk opera based on Bill Clinton to open in New York

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 18, 2011 8:38 AM
Folk opera based on Bill Clinton to open in New York

By Suzi Parker

LITTLE ROCK, Ark (Reuters) - An Americana folk opera based on a teenage Bill Clinton debuts this weekend in New York, featuring some of the exaggerated Southern characters who surrounded him growing up, such as his fun-loving mother.

It is the brainchild of Arkansan Bonnie Montgomery, who has spent the last four years composing "Billy Blythe."

The opera is based on a day in the life of a teenage Clinton. She enlisted a friend, Britt Barber of Atlanta, to write the lyrics. Last fall, Montgomery premiered a part of the opera in Little Rock.

The Metropolis Opera Project in New York debuts the entire opera at The Medicine Show Theater on Sunday and Monday.

"When we heard about it, it sounded completely intriguing," said Zach James, the opera's director. "It was very clear that it was an astonishingly beautiful piece and very much in the vein of what we want to do."

The Metropolis Opera Project, which is three years old, and Montgomery want to attract a new generation to opera, which is struggling to keep up with modern times. A contemporary opera like Montgomery's does just that, James said.

The opera's name derives from Clinton's birth surname. His biological father, Bill Blythe, died three months before the future president was born in 1946. Clinton later took his step-father's name.

Montgomery, an Arkansas native and classically trained musician, examines a summer day in 1959 in Hot Springs, Arkansas with a young Clinton who lives with his mother, the late Virginia Clinton Kelley, and his abusive stepfather, Roger Clinton.

"Growing up in Arkansas, I heard a lot of stories about Clinton," she said. "But the real inspiration came when I was reading his autobiography."

Montgomery focuses heavily on Clinton's relationship with his mother, a colorful character who enjoyed makeup, gambling and good times. Clinton wrote in his book that as a teenager he loved watching his mother apply her make-up every morning. That scene inspired Montgomery.

"It appeared to me on the stage with the lights, the set, the whole thing," Montgomery said. "His life 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."

Clinton is aware of the opera. Montgomery told him about the project in 2009 when she saw him in Little Rock. The Metropolis Opera Project has extended an invitation to him. They have not heard whether he will attend.

The Clinton Foundation did not return calls for a comment.

Over the years, other operas about presidents have been written.

"Nixon in China," which premiered in 1987 in Houston, was performed earlier this year in New York. In 2008, New Hampshire composer Roger Rudenstein conceived and composed "The Devil and George Bush." Rudenstein created the opera about the 43rd president specifically for the Internet and as downloads for MP3 players and mobile phones.

Last year, The Metropolis Opera Project produced "Bully Pulpit," an "opera electronica" that ventured into rap and hip-hop featuring Bush, Nixon and Andrew Jackson as characters.

"I think political operas definitely pique people's interest because we know these characters, these people who are a piece of our history," James said.

"It is an easier sell in a way because people become very intrigued when they hear about an opera about Bill Clinton."

(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Greg McCune)