Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
On Monday morning, a roomful of performers are miles away from their jobs at out-of-state colleges, leafing through notes and sheet music, stretching and doing vocal warm-ups in a chilly Quapaw Quarter studio when Bonnie Montgomery, the woman of the week, looks up from her keyboard.
"Alright, let's take it from 83, okay?"
She rolls a few introductory measures out of the keys before Evan Jones and Chris McKay, both opera instructors, dive into their scene from "Billy Blythe," Montgomery's much-anticipated "American folk opera" about President Clinton's childhood which, this Friday, will announce the operatic debut from the local composer.
It's been a long string of "unlikelies," if not "unprecedenteds," for the White County native, 31, and her Bill-centric composition. What began with reading "My Life" in 2006 turned into a vivid vision of an adolescent Clinton with mother Virginia Kelley on an operatic stage, which then led to the beginning of an intensive, four-year-long songwriting session by Montgomery and fellow Ouachita Baptist University graduate Britt Barber, the project's librettist.
Before releasing so much as a note of the piece, "Blythe" began to draw unforeseeable national attention from opera magazines and political newspapers, even popping up as a joke in a "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" monologue.
But for now, while opera enthusiasts wait in the wings, the cast and crew seem unshaken by the national eye focused on their homegrown production. They admit that the buzz surrounding "Blythe" is unusually huge for a workshop production, but with four scenes to perfect in five short days, their watchword is "work," not "worry."
This morning's song, which sees a young Clinton debating whether or not to take a swing at his abusive stepfather before finally confronting him, ends with director Jeremy Franklin springing upright from his crouch on the floor.
"That was great, guys. Now this time, Big Roger, turn to Billy the second he says 'fight' and you laugh at him."
Montgomery lights up, agreeing with the cue.
"See, it's so nice to have the composer in the room," Franklin quips. "It's like, you can't say, 'Hey, Verdi, if we can add three measures here, we could really make this acting thing work.'"
The two baritones perform the scene a few more times, tweaking their vocals and stage blocking between each run while Montgomery shares a bench and trades notes with Dr. Robert Boury, the celebrated ragtime pianist, composer-in-residence at UALR and, as Montgomery puts it, her "mentor and psychiatrist" during the final changes to the "Blythe" score, made to highlight the state's musical history.
"I wanted to pay tribute to the indigenous Arkansas genres: blues, bluegrass, the ragtime of [late Arkansan] William Grant Still into the operatic structure," says Montgomery. "It was important to incorporate the musical heritage of our state, to be able to hear light in the evening, the cicadas, the heat and the watermelon in this opera.
"But specifically, we had to capture how wild Hot Springs was in the 1950s with all the drinking, partying and gambling right beside strict, Southern religion and racial segregation."
It may sound odd in theory, but it sounds great, catchy even, on stage as the music takes cues from both Italian and American masters, Montgomery citing Giuseppe Verdi beside Leonard Bernstein as influences and further drawing upon lesser known musical figures like Ned Rorem and Virgil Thomson, two geniuses of the American opera tradition.
After a quick break, the collected cast and crew return to work, sprinting towards Friday's opening curtain sans co-writer Britt Barber, who's been the victim of canceled flights for the last 24 hours.
Take by take, they're in a frantic focus, singing life into "Billy Blythe." No doubt, the enthusiasm in the room is exciting enough for a bystander. But looking on as Montgomery — surely a little proud behind her second helping of Southern manners — watches her own labor of love finally take its first steps to future successes unknown, it's hard not to be stirred.
Even if it weren't already a bit frigid in the studio, the whole scenario would be enough to raise a few goosebumps.
"Billy Blythe" debuts as a workshop performance at 8 p.m., this Friday, Nov. 19, at the Women's City Club before tipping its hat to Europe's "pub opera" trend with an encore performance and after party at 10 p.m. at that old Clinton haunt, White Water Tavern. Tickets are $10 for the Women's City Club performance and $7 for the after-party. Purchase advance tickets at billyblytheopera.com.
As for a full debut of the opera, Montgomery says she's received interest from several opera companies that want to debut "Billy Blythe," but she's still weighing her options.
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