“Billy Blythe” represents an “opportunity to bring opera back to the people,” director Jeremy Franklin told a near-capacity crowd at its premiere Friday night at the Women’s City Club. The production, Franklin reminded the audience, is “by, for and about Arkansans” — by natives Bonnie Montgomery and Brit Barber, composer and librettist, respectively; for Arkansans but also, implicitly, regular folks who don’t know Verdi from verismo and about the man who, more than anyone else, has come to represent what Arkansas means to the world abroad, Bill Clinton.
Of course, as the title suggests, “Billy Blythe” is not a familiar Bill Clinton story. Rather, Montgomery and Barber look to Clinton’s childhood, specifically to 1959, the last year kept his birth surname Blythe.
But those on Friday hoping for a story that captures that pivotal time in the future president’s life only got a tease. Because that’s all the performance was — not a true premiere, but rather a costumed workshop production of four scenes, only about half of the full opera.