Opera Will Tell The Story Of Former President Clinton's Childhood

Jul 19, 2010

Bonnie Montgomery discusses her opera on the childhood of Bill Clinton at KUAR.
Credit Michael Hibblen

An Arkansas singer is hoping to show how the childhood of Bill Clinton helped shape the future president. She is putting together an opera that is a day in the life of the then 14-year-old Clinton growing up in Hot Springs.

The production is to be called Billy Blythe, which is the name Clinton went by until he adopted his step-father's last name in high school.  It's the brainchild of 30-year-old Bonnie Montgomery.

"I was reading Bill Clinton's autobiography 'My Life' and in the first few chapters he writes about his childhood and his youth.  And just the way he wrote about that was very evocative for me.  I could see it on a stage in an operatic form," Montgomery said.

Montgomery is a native of Searcy, who graduated from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, then attended the University of Missouri-Kansas City's Conservatory of Music.  To put the opera together, she enlisted the help of Britt Barber, a former classmate at Ouachita who today lives in Atlanta.

"I took the idea and I ran with it and went home and wrote the first scene and told her what I imagined it would sound like and basically she put it down on the piano," said Barber.

The play is set in Hot Springs in 1959 and includes Clinton's rather volatile home life with a fun-loving mother and a physically abusive step-father.  It would be a pivotal time for the future president.

"I'm hoping to portray Clinton becoming or realizing what he's capable of, who he is and who he can become at that very sensitive age in a person's life," said Barber.

"We're painting a day in the life of Billy Blythe," said Montgomery.  "It opens at dawn and it closes at night.  And we have compressed events that happened over several years of his life in this one day in the most realistic way that we can."

But anything involving the former President faces scrutiny and can quickly become fodder for late night comics.  After a bit of national attention on the opera, Jimmy Fallon brought it up during a recent monologue.

Montgomery is leery of this kind of attention.  "You mention Arkansas and you get a laugh, same thing with Clinton sometimes," said Montgomery.  "But I want it to be an uplifting and inspirational and positive story for Arkansas heritage, the Clinton legacy and opera too."

The public will likely get its first taste of the opera in September, when Montgomery is planning to perform a couple of scenes before a small audience.  Then she hopes to bring it to a more formal venue.

The former President learned of the project last fall.  "I actually ran into Clinton in November downtown in Little Rock and told him about it," Montgomery said.  "In the end, the way we said goodbye was that 'I support your project.'  I don't know if he realizes what it entails but I was real encouraged by that."