Composer Bonnie Montgomery is adorable as she quietly jokes with a noticeable southern twang, “It’s nice to perform without a bunch of beer bottles clanking.” It is clear why the company had her introduce the show with a few songs of her own, I wouldn’t want anyone else to guide me through life in small town Arkansas. She does so admirably in the world premiere of this self described folk opera, albeit through an unnecessary lens.
The marketing posters boasted an iconic and gray Clinton epically gazing against an American flag backdrop. With Hillary campaigning a few hours away in NYC at the time of the performance, I was prematurely concerned the show would try to be a bit too ambitious for itself. But it turned out to be quite the opposite. The opera starts and ends before our protagonist even makes it to Georgetown, and there isn’t a single reference to government. For me, Billy Blythe is the story of one family’s struggle against domestic abuse. While a fine narrative, it isn’t quite clear why Montgomery and librettist, Britt Barber, were compelled to write about Clinton at all. Garrett Obrycki, who nobly interprets the title role, could have been any good ol’ boy from the south until a stock photo of young Bill Clinton was projected onto the back wall.
Using the focus on Bill’s less fantastical adolescence, Montgomery played the medium of opera against itself in a fun, and surprisingly sexy manner. For one, the libretto demands productions focus predominantly into the master bedroom, which Dawn Pierce and Erik Angerhofer, playing Virginia and Roger Clinton respectively, embodied in a playful sensuality. Their dominant vibratos fully tap into the power of contrasting intimacy and intensity, and accentuate an already fluent chemistry that was on vivid display, overflowing with sex appeal. If I didn’t know better, I would guess they have been developing this relationship for at least a few years.
The real feat of the night was the ways in which the show was able to tactfully balance the modest set and intimate sensuality with the bellowing sounds of Ithaca’s most powerful singers; the result is an exotic but forceful combination. Admittedly, the disparity took some getting used to and early on it landed with awkward humor. But eventually it developed into something incomparably affectionate, warm and intimate; opera like you’ve never seen it before. With every breath they seem to threaten the time worn conception of opera framed with giant red velvet curtains created for an audience of clichéd one-dimensional, crackling, paper maché, distracted patrons.
As much as I can praise its provocative challenges to the operatic norm, structurally, it’s missing a few beats. I left the theatre without the epic satiation of dramatic conflict and resolution that opera is so well suited to tackle. I never expected nor hoped for a heap of bodies at the end, but at times there was an event or an action without a second to further develop it, and you were left questioning its function in the script. The obvious exception is when Billy Blythe stood up to his dad in a scene that can only be described as epic. Refusing to let his vulnerable mother be abused, Obrycki effectively wards of his father’s advances with a powerful and clear baritone. The climactic incident was followed by a compelling final scene harmoniously melding several scores from the play and riddled with ostinatos. The elegant music and disjointed characters all jam-packed on the Kitchen’s small stage epitomized Montgomery’s skill as a composer, yet highlighted the narrative incohesion.
As artistic director, Lynn Craver informed us in the beginning of the show, Opera Ithaca is a rapidly growing group that has made incredible ground work since its inception just two years ago. Thanks to Craver and General Director Zachary James, Ithaca now has its own prolific and qualified opera company. Exploring the edges of the genre’s boundaries, they are building a new audience of opera goers that might just be the opposite of the urban relics of classical opera aficionados. Whatever Opera Ithaca’s upcoming projects are, they might not be what one expects from the time honored tradition, but you can be sure they will be downright innovative, fresh and exciting to watch. We are lucky to have them, so take advantage of it — I’m looking at you, Cornell student.
Sam Morrison is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].