I recently went to a performance of Billy Blythe, an opera by Bonnie Montgomery and Britt Barber that had its full premiere by the Metropolis Opera Project at the Medicine Show Theatre on June 19 and 20 in New York.
Billy Blythe, a short-length opera in one act, is a coming of age story set in the late 1950′s in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The work is a snapshot of Arkansas life and how the character, culture and landscape of southern Arkansas shaped the adolescence of former president Bill Clinton. The work’s name comes simply from Clinton’s birth name, which he changed at age sixteen.
Is Billy Blythe your first venture into opera?
Yes, Billy Blythe is my first opera to compose, but I studied opera performance throughout my education. I love it very much, but growing up in rural Arkansas, I didn’t discover it until I was a teenager. I sang several roles through my college years, including Augusta in The Ballad of Baby Doe, which was my favorite role to play so far.
What were the dramatic elements that inspired you to turn Bill Clinton’s biography into a libretto?
Brittany Barber wrote all the words for Billy Blythe, and we both brainstormed on the content of the libretto. Clinton had a very colorful childhood with a lot of strong characters and dramatic scenes. We actually had to whittle down which of those to portray in the opera. Every character and major event in the opera came straight from Clinton’s autobiography, My Life and Virginia Clinton Kelley’s memoir, Leading With My Heart.
You seem to be very much attached to your state, and have studied Arkansan folk traditions. Have you referenced these traditions in your opera?
I didn’t refer to those traditions overtly, but the musical landscape of the opera is filled with blues, ragtime, early rock and roll, and folk as well as classical elements. I think that is a reflection of the musical language in Arkansas. It is a very diverse state, musically speaking, with Louisianna (zydeco, jazz, cajun) to the south, Texas to the west, Mississippi and Memphis blues to the east and all the talent that’s produced their own sound over the years right there in Arkansas. Johnny Cash and Scott Joplin come to mind and they’re just the beginning of names in the list of talent from Arkansas.
Should one say that you are popularizing the opera form by using folk elements in your score, or that you are classicizing the musical theatre form by using operatic voices?
I’d like to think that one might say we’re popularizing opera. One of our main goals in writing Billy Blythe was to bring opera to a wider audience and make it accessible for young people and even rural audiences that have not been exposed to opera. We hoped that the melody-driven musical language of Billy Blythe along with the familiar subject, English language and short length of the opera would help to do that.
Is there an opera that you wish you had written? And an opera you wish it hadn’t been written?
Well, of course I wish I had written one of the greats so that I could understand the medium more. I suppose I wish I had written the one I am working on now. And as far as an opera I wish hadn’t been written, I just don’t know. I like opera quite a bit and I try to be open to all styles, so I’d say I appreciate all of them. Now, musical theatre, that’s another story!
Montgomery studied music at Ouachita Baptist University, then at UMKC Conservatory of Music. She focused on American art song and folk music with emphasis on Arkansas’ musical heritage. She has also worked and performed in Asia, Mexico, Australia and Europe, during which she learned an even greater appreciation for her home state and region, where her family still owns and operates a local music store on the court square in White County. Montgomery currently resides in Little Rock, Arkansas.