Every state has its pantheon of figures that cast a shadow long enough to make them something like living legend. In Arkansas, few figures loom larger than Bill Clinton, the political wunderkind and boy governor who went on to become a two-term president of the United States. You may have seen his library down by the Arkansas River.
Arguably the most inspirational part of Clinton’s story lies in his humble beginnings, with the boy who would be president raised largely by his mother, the flamboyant Virginia Cassidy (later Blythe, later Clinton, later Dwire, later Kelley), in Hope and Hot Springs. Clinton’s father, William Blythe, was killed in a car accident in May 1946, three months before the future president was born.
The idea of an orphaned boy from nowhere growing up to become the leader of the free world was dramatic enough that it caught the eye of singer/songwriter and Searcy native Bonnie Montgomery. While reading Clinton’s autobiography, “My Life,” in 2006, Montgomery was so taken by a single image — Clinton’s description of watching his mother put on her makeup — that she was moved to song. Collaborating with writer Brittany Barber, they worked for the next five years to craft the one-act opera, “Billy Blythe.” Set in 1959 in Hot Springs, the 45-minute piece is built around young Bill’s relationship with his mother, and a turning point in the future president’s often tumultuous relationship with his alcoholic stepfather, Roger Clinton.
“Blythe” is the first opera by Montgomery, a Searcy native whose country music albums earned her the title of Ameripolitan Music Award’s 2016 Outlaw Female. The first production of the opera was a workshop-length piece staged at Little Rock’s White Water Tavern in 2010; its stage premiere was with Opera Ithaca in Ithaca, N.Y., and it was later performed in New York City.
Writing opera, Montgomery said, was a fascinating experience. “It felt so relevant and alive, and so much more in depth than a country song,” Montgomery said. “There are so many intricacies in the composition of an opera and the subject, too, as far as what you can convey, as far as the psychology of the characters with the music. It’s a whole different ballgame.”
While Montgomery never met Virginia Kelley, she said that she was drawn to her as an example of a strong, larger-than-life Southern woman who was able to hold her family together under difficult circumstances. Montgomery said she looks up to her as a personal hero.
“She was really progressive for her time,” Montgomery said. “She was an optimist, too, which I found inspiring. She said in her book that she could steel her mind to anything negative and only let in positive thoughts. I just thought that was a great way to be.”
Stephanie Smittle (who, full disclosure, is the entertainment editor of the Arkansas Times) will sing the role of Virginia in the Opera in the Rock production. While Smittle has performed in Mozart operas in Italy and the United States, this will be her first time singing about figures that are still living. A Cave Springs native who often visited Hope and Hot Springs growing up, Smittle says singing about places she’s familiar with puts a different spin on things. She says it’s especially moving to be playing the part while Hillary Clinton is campaigning for the presidency. Like Montgomery, Smittle identifies with the strong, independent Virginia.
“There’s this core of strength to her that’s like, ‘it doesn’t matter what you do, you will not shake me,’ ” Smittle said. “I think a lot of people would think about that as a sort of Southern strength, but certainly Hillary is that way, and she didn’t grow up down here and didn’t grow up under the same circumstances. It’s been very cool. It’s like: revolution. It really feels like a leaf is turning. So it’s strange to be in the position of studying the history of how that came to be before Hillary was ever in the picture.”
Montgomery said she didn’t write the opera specifically for Bill Clinton, but does hope it honors his legacy. Currently brainstorming on an opera about Hot Springs madam Maxine Jones, she says she is often asked whether she plans to expand “Billy Blythe” to include later moments in Clinton’s life, especially now that Hillary is on the verge of taking the White House.
“I’ve had that question every time this has been performed,” she said. “Of course there are questions about the scandals and ‘why not the love triangle’ or whatever. But I don’t know if I’m really inspired to go further into the Clinton life. I do think he’s an extraordinary person, and I do think all the different phases of his life are fascinating. But for some reason there’s something about it being set in Arkansas in the ’50s in Hot Springs. Really, it’s a tale of Arkansas life, more so than it being really about Bill Clinton.”
“Billy Blythe” is the latest production by Opera in the Rock. Along with the Arkansas premiere of Richard Wargo’s one-act opera “The Music Shop,” it will be staged at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 16-17 at Pulaski Technical College’s Center for Humanities and Arts, 3000 W. Scenic Drive in North Little Rock. Tickets are $25, or $15 for students, and can be purchased at the Pulaski Tech box office, or at the Opera in the Rock website, oitr.org.