Metropolis Opera Project, an experimental opera company in New York, once mounted a hip-hop/electronic opera in which Hitler, Castro, Saddam Hussein and Mother Theresa sang about the role of God in their lives, and Oprah, Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O’Donnell rapped. Naturally, when a new opera that imagined the boyhood of Bill Clinton came across the desk of director Zachary James, he took notice.
“The composer had labeled it a folk opera,” said James, “and that really grabbed my attention.”
That composer would be Little Rock’s Bonnie Montgomery, who arrives in New York this week to watch as “Billy Blythe,” her opera drawn from the pages of Clinton’s memoir “My Life,” with a few detours through “Leading With My Heart,” his late mother Virginia Kelley’s autobiography, gets a New York stage treatment.
Montgomery previewed four scenes of “Billy Blythe” at two workshops in Little Rock back in December, but Metropolis will present all seven scenes, with a full cast in showings scheduled for Sunday and Monday nights at the company’s Medicine Show Theatre at 52nd Street and 11th Avenue, in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan (a neighborhood being fortuitously relabeled by real estate marketers as — guess what? — Clinton).
In composing “Billy Blythe,” Montgomery often imagined the role of Virginia being sung by Megan Nelson, a classmate of Montgomery’s at the Conservatory of Music at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, where she earned a Master of Arts, with a specialty in documenting Southern music. The two kept in touch as Montgomery, a native of Searcy, moved to Nashville and Nelson moved to New York, where she sits on the board of Metropolis. Because of her travel schedule, Nelson isn’t able to perform the role of Clinton’s mother in the performances, but she is responsible for bringing “Billy Blythe” to the company’s attention. “She thought it was a match made in heaven for their troupe,” Montgomery says.
The company is billing the performances as “developmental readings,” meaning the performers will work on a bare stage, not in costume, while holding scripts. Though the previous staging in Little Rock summoned pre-Civil-Rights-era Arkansas with period props and clothing, Montgomery believes the material is vivid enough to punch through the skeletal presentation. “I feel confident that the mood and time period and the Southern character of the piece is going to come through,” she said. “There are a lot of colloquialisms and period sayings, and already it’s a minimalistic idea. It’s the 1950s, so it’s not like Victorian or something, you know?”
Montgomery has a lot invested in the performances. Eight members of the board of directors for North Little Rock’s Argenta Arts Council plan to attend the performances to gauge whether “Billy Blythe” could earn a place in the season for the new Argenta Community Theater. And Montgomery also knows that Mondays — a day off for most Broadway performers — are the only chance most theater folk have to check out shows they ordinarily must miss because of performance obligations. (In fact, James, the show’s director, plays Lurch in the current Broadway production of “The Addams Family.”)
In readying the material, James and his team occasionally reached out to Montgomery to clarify her intentions. Because the material is presented as a series of vignettes, James wanted to be sure that an arc of character development emerges for young Billy. “It’s like these little special moments all over the place,” James said. “We wanted to show how he grows in this short amount of time.”
Together, James and Montgomery identified what they call the Melon Scene — an exchange centering around the Hope Watermelon Festival in which Bill and his grandfather swap tall tales — as the moment Clinton becomes a political orator. “You see that Grandpa’s teaching him how to present himself as a storyteller. He’s teaching him how to use metaphor,” said James.
As for Clinton himself, Montgomery doesn’t expect him to show up in the audience just because she has essentially brought “Billy Blythe” to his turf. “His people are aware of it,” she said. “From what I’m hearing, they’re probably just waiting to make sure it’s favorable before they make any move.” (Montgomery bumped into Clinton in Little Rock four times in the past year — once at the Capital Hotel, twice at a Democratic rally, then again at the Arkansas Studies Institute — and mentioned the opera to him on the first three encounters. Although he usually wishes her well, by the fourth, “I just didn’t say anything,” she recalled. “I don’t want to be that person.”)
After the curtain falls on “Billy Blythe” Monday night, Montgomery will have no time to rest. Using the Web site Sonicbids, which connects touring bands with gig opportunities, she arranged a full week of performances, in Manhattan’s East Village and at bars around Brooklyn, for her band, Montgomery Trucking.
“That was harder than getting my opera picked up,” she said of the band booking. “I never knew that process would be so ridiculous. But I’m just excited to kind of do everything that I’ve worked towards all in one fell swoop while I’m in the city. It’s a weird juggling act that I do, composer and also front woman for a country band.”
But “Billy Blythe” remains foremost in her ambitions. “Sometimes I wish it would skyrocket,” she said, “but I feel like it’s rolling along at a really nice pace. It’s a dream of mine to see it have a life in Europe.”