Billy Boy

Alex Krasser ’09 stars in an opera about Bill Clinton.

By Lorraine Berry

For Alex Krasser ’09, breathing is at the heart of acting technique. “Everything changes with the breath,” is the advice he learned at Ithaca College, but today it has greater resonance. “It’s sound acting advice, sure,” says Krasser. “But frankly, I’ve found it even more helpful in dealing with the real world. Namely in dealing with the MTA.”

That wry wit combined with dark good looks and multidimensional acting talent has taken Krasser far in his first few years on the New York theater scene. He’s already gotten a write-up in the New Yorker, about his appearance this summer in the Metropolis Opera Project’s (MOP) production of Billy Blythe, an opera about the adolescence of POTUS 42: William Jefferson Clinton, who, before he took his stepfather’s surname, was known as Billy Blythe.

Billy's Story

The opera is set in 1950s Arkansas, where Billy and his mother, Virginia, adjust to life with Virginia’s new husband, Roger Clinton. (Bill Clinton’s father was killed in a car wreck while Virginia was pregnant with Bill.) The opera was inspired by the chapter in Clinton’s 2004 memoir, My Life, in which he described his relationship with his vivacious mother. The opera is so focused on Clinton’s youth, that there are no allusions to his time as president, no mention of the name Clinton whatsoever.

“Instead, it presented him as a teenager, just beginning to discover his purpose in the world,” Krasser says. “He loved tellin’ stories with his Papaw, goin’ to the picture shows, and was very close with his mother.”

There’s even a scene where Krasser breaks into song after watching High Noon, which Clinton said was his favorite film.

Krasser continues: “Bill’s stepfather, Roger Clinton, was a loving husband and father half of the time, and an abusive alcoholic the other half. The climax of the opera pits the two of them against each other in a battle of wills, and Bill comes out of the other side with the realization that he has to stand up for what’s right. The opera ends with a hopeful and determined young man, hinting at what he would become.”

Krasser's Take 

So, has the reaction to the opera been as complicated as the American public’s reaction to President Clinton?

“I think the response was generally positive,” Krasser says. “Because it took such a sensitive, unique angle on the adolescence of one of the most (in)famous figures of the past few decades, I think people walked away with a deeper appreciation for the man behind the headlines — where he came from, and what he was fighting for from the beginning.”

Okay. But Krasser is playing a living ex-president. What would he say should he one day bump into the former president?

“I might be tempted to ask him if he’s ever stood on a chair and sang the praises of Gary Cooper in High Noon. Something tells me he hasn’t, though.”

Krasser takes a quiet breath. “I’d probably tell him that I admired his courage as a teen. Despite his stepfather’s abusive drunkenness, Bill managed to see a loving father in him, and took the Clinton name to prove it.”

Zach James ’05, founding member of the Metropolis Opera Project, directed this production of Billy Blythe.