Last Saturday morning’s snow flurries and bracing sub-zero temperatures could not kill the bright flower of an Ithaca, New York, theater evening, one that promised a world premiere of an alluring anti-idyll, Billy Blythe, a one-act opera about a day in the life of the teenage Bill Clinton set in Hope, Arkansas. Walking to the show through the grey-blue evening that seemed to hold the dying light and cold without wanting to let either go, I had no presumptions about what I would see and hear in the theater. In the event, I wasn’t so much surprised by this small, yet mysteriously expansive drama, as I was simply taken in and warmed by its languorous beauty, enthralled by its humid passion, and jolted by its crack of violence.
Down from the Cayuga bluffs I strode and onto the nineteenth-century flats of the old town, its Saturday night streets virtually empty of human traffic. The lack of people underway should not be ascribed to winter’s late season comeback. In the Roaring Twenties, when Upstate still hummed and streetcars ran until after midnight, when the movie houses were bursting with young and old, and when the winters and early springs were fiercer than they are now, the sidewalks would have been swarming.
Of late, vigorous local attempts have been made to fight the tide of urban decay and suburban blight, efforts spearheaded by Ithaca’s young and energetic mayor Svante Myrick. The main thrust of this strategy has been the pedestrian zone called the Ithaca Commons: stretching down two blocks of the main street, which was closed to traffic in the 1970s and recently given a massive re-do that ran over time and over budget, fraying the patience of residents and sapping the cash reserves of businesses. The triumphal entrance to this proudly civic space is a jumble of variously angled metal poles atop which a cheese-grater-like sheet of metal tells those entering that this is indeed the “Ithaca Commons.” The message purveyed by this triumphal arch being perhaps that you should not expect to acquire any of the trinkets on offer without getting skinned alive—or at least severely abraded.
On the way to the opera this Saturday night only a few lost souls tread the new paving stones. The shops purveying mystic crystals, water pipes, infused olive oils, and vintage ladies outfits, offer their wares but not their warmth. Although there are many vacant retail spaces, this shopping district is the very picture of economic vitality compared to the other towns and cities of the region.
Exiting the pedestrian zone at its western end, the light fading quickly over the hill beyond, I behold the marquee of the grand State Theatre advertising a fundraiser featuring the greatest sleight-of-hand master in the world—the Las Vegas showman and heir to Houdini, Jeff McBride. Saved from the wrecking ball a couple of decades ago and the last of the city’s opulent palaces of entertainment, the State is now a going, if somewhat dilapidated, concern. Here’s hoping McBride’s magic hands can help continue its recovery.
But even the monumental wallop of McBride’s description-beggaring card tricks that close the show cannot pull me off track towards the theatre. Down past the grim Chinese food place and its paternal twin of a sushi shop next door (an Edward Hopper glazed in MSG) I march; past the monolithic County Health and Welfare building for which an entire block of gracious, if run-down, wooden houses was bulldozed.
At last I arrive at the Kitchen Theatre, which is hosting the weekend’s Billy Blythe performances. This trim and tidy edifice is tucked between the VFW outpost and a derelict warehouse of Ithaca’s venerable hardware store. When Lowe’s and Home Depot came to the city’s endlessly expanding periphery a decade ago, these boxy behemoths sank this longtime local business, celebrated for its unfriendly services and outrageously high prices. No longer can one enjoy the thrill of being scoffed at for your lack of knowledge about toilet seals and pay twice the market price for the privilege. That was retail theatre worth paying for!
The Kitchen is the most respectable building on a scrappy grim block. A vintage diner and an auto parts store are across the street. Farther along there’s trendy bar with lots of beers and even more designer beards. In spite of that distant buzz of the Brooklyn hipster vibe, the street is bleak, the theatre seeming at the present time more a foothold against the forces of urban decline than the beacon of a twenty-first century renaissance. As if following an unseen stage manager’s command from the wings, a police car (Clinton’s crime bill got Ithaca a couple of extra ones) trawls by to underscore the marginal nature of the district.
Civic squalor; a black underclass; rural poverty; strapped welfare programs; an abiding sense of decline; wars abroad (VFW); and despair at home: much of this dolor can be laid at the large feet of the subject of tonight’s opera—Big Bill Clinton. He exported jobs, fostered a robust growth in incarceration and even did some executing himself so as to vault into the White House. Once in the oval office he bombed and bullied on the international stage. His wife became our state’s junior senator: It takes A Village, she claimed, but the villages of Upstate New York are beleaguered, despairing places, residents clustered most densely in trailer parks and the many prisons she fed with federal pork.
Kindly making itself available for the Opera Ithaca’s latest production about Clinton’s youth, the Kitchen Theatre occupies a repurposed utilitarian structure of 1950s vintage, with a high glass entry and an ample foyer as big as many on 45th Street down in Manhattan. The modest, well-apportioned theatrical space combines a black box utilitarian approach with touches of the baroque past: the stage area is enclosed on three sides by steeply raked seats with a balcony above. This set-up allows, indeed encourages, the audience to become part of the spectacle just as it was in the great age of opera, when a glimpse into the box above could be the most exciting thing one saw all night.
On the Saturday night of this world premiere weekend for Billy Blythe the theatre is mostly full, though the balcony closed off: density and excitement is in the spirit of such a celebration.
Opera Ithaca was founded less than two years ago and has already begun invigorating the city’s cultural life with its innovative approach to programming and to staging classic works. The company’s production of Don Giovanni last fall was rated “R” for nudity, language and violence. In places like Berlin such warning risks redundancy: audiences there are inured to onstage outrages involving violence, sex, and song. In the Empire State provinces, however, there’s no quicker way to get butts in the seats than to dangle the alluring word “nudity.”
The title role of Don Giovanni was taken by tall and resonant young American Baritone Garrett Obrycki: a commanding singer and talented actor who played the part as a sexual predator, unsavory and unrepentant. He stripped naked for the damnation that had him trudge and crawl across the entire auditorium towards the unforgiving light glaring from a distant stairway, finally disappearing beneath the red “Exit” sign to meet his maker—then slip into a dressing gown for the curtain calls.
Simultaneously minimal and boldly adventurous, the Ithaca staging of Mozart’s opera was marred by its insistence on exploiting the full expanse of the early twentieth-century ballroom in which it was performed, the singers often becoming detached from the orchestra led from a far corner by the reliable Richard Montgomery, whose abundant skills could not overcome the acoustic and geographic gap created by the characters’ restive movements. Still, it was a real and memorable evening in the theater, full of excellent singing, provocative juxtapositions, gritty details, and a plethora of ideas sparked by a bare-bones budget. The collective vision brought with it unexpected perspectives on this canonic work. Even if that Don Giovanni literally went too far from the music, it was rightly and vigorously applauded for pushing boundaries, even if it occasionally exceeded them.
Opera Ithaca has a substantial resource in Obrycki and was right to go back to the well and cast him as the young Bill Clinton, born William Blythe in the first year of the baby boom, as we were informed at the outset of the show with black-and-white family photos projected on the back wall of the theater.
Instead of the slouching, sleazing, slicked-back Don Giovanni, Obrycki was all crisp and fresh as the teenager Clinton with dreams of a bright future for himself: the picture of 1950s optimism in the midst of the Cold War: checked shirt and cuffed flannel trousers and sneakers. He was joined for a glowing reverie about the sweetness of Arkansas melons by the Grandpa Eldridge, played by David Neal, who had also been Leporello to Obrycki’s Don Giovanni. Neal had been especially mistreated by the stage direction, often singing far from the orchestra and thus lagging badly behind the beat. This made him into a haplessly lethargic comic sidekick, whose ineptitude emphasized the terrifying side of being indentured to a womanizing brute.
Hymning melons in Billy Blythe’s eloquent, dreamy duet with his grandson, Neal’s Grandpa Eldridge also refused to march in step with the relentless beat of modern time, the languor of his rich and textured baritone voice projecting everything about the purposelessness of the family’s life.
The music for Billy Blythe comes from country singer-songwriter Bonnie Montgomery, who started off the evening with a set of three of her original songs that dealt with the kinds of desire and dreams of the southern working people from which her opera’s hero came. Accompanying herself on the guitar, Montgomery’s is a pure, bright voice, and also an authentic one. Urging her on with plucked basslines and melancholic countermelodies was cellist, Sera Smolen, a member of the piano trio that made up the rump orchestra, the multi-threat Montgomery at an upright piano whose clangorous sound and poor tuning was perfectly curated (by neglect) for the white trash arias, soaked in alcohol and sex.
Montgomery’s operatic score was a mixture of dance hall, balladry, Broadway, Bayreuth, with modernist intrusions of dissonance and overlapped harmonies. Dreamy loops and stretches of stasis captured the pace and dread of the family’s Southern life, but also its dark desires and thwarted hopes. These repetitions and simplicities haloed Billy as he beamed upward, as if constantly looking towards the future, and when helped his mother apply makeup, brought her coffee. The sense of suspending time was twice shattered by violent action, the music snapping out of its trance in an outburst angular sonorities and stabbing melody when Billy’s faces down his abusive stepfather, Roger, in an oedipal struggle in which we see and hear the teenage vault from adolescent idealism into the action of manhood. The senior Roger Clinton was brought to life with grit and sloth by Erik Angerhofer, a compelling presence who spent most of his stage time in his socks and underwear. His voice was not as commanding or seductive as Obrycki’s but this difference served to project the opposite dramatic trajectories of the characters, as well as their ages. Billy’s mother, the voluptuous Virginia Clinton gave an unforgettable performance: seductive of voice and figure, numbed by drink and the toxic mix of conjugal love and abuse, greedy for the balm of filial love. The movements and interactions of these other characters (a travelling salesman, beat up by the good old boys at Roger’s auto dealership) orchestrated with sensitive and flair by director, Norm Johnson.
The libretto by Britt Barber is a masterpiece of economic scene-crafting, characterization, and dramatic shaping. In fewer than sixty minutes, Barber creates not just a plot, but the nuanced, indeed terrifying interactions of the lush and doting mother, the menacing step-father, the ineffective grandfather, and the unerring resolve and hopefulness of the boy from Hope. The final chorus, suspended in time yet searching for some ineffable truth, seemed to stretch beyond the setting, indeed beyond the theatre, into the dark and troubled streets beyond—out into the night, and into the future.
The single day dramatized in Billy Blythe moves from the alcoholic awakenings of the parents, through to Roger’s arrest. In the afternoon Billy goes to see High Noon and returns from the movie holding a black hat, a symbol of Gary Cooper’s lonely heroism, and a boosting prop for Billy in his own battles, first at home, then later in the governor’s mansion and the White House. The shimmering idyll of Billy Blythe’s music casts the future president’s boyhood dreams and struggles as something mythic, timeless. Yet this short opera also poignantly reminds us how adept—how blithe—he was in remaking himself. Born in a place called Hope, Billy Blythe left little hope in his political wake. You can see that much and hear that in the streets right outside the theater doors.