June 18, 2007

Opera singers belt out country songs


Photos by Christopher Gizzi / contributing photographer    
The Opera Cowpokes perform in Courthouse Park on Sunday in front of an attentive audience. The performance was part of the Arts at Grace concert series. From left are, David Neal, Tim LeFebure, Steve Stull and Bob Allen.  

Staff Reporter

Country and western music is usually associated with a bit of a twang, but the robust voices of opera singers boomed out the old cowboy songs during the Opera Cowpokes performance in Courthouse Park on Sunday, part of the Arts at Grace music series.
The singers were dressed in cowboy hats and blue Western shirts, while cowgirl dancers with dairy cow print hats danced in the intermittent sun in front of the Cortland Youth Bureau Showmobile.
About 200 people sat on folding chairs, benches and blankets on the Father’s Day afternoon.
The Opera Cowpokes began about 12 years ago when Jeanne Goddard, of Ithaca, a modern dance instructor and choreographer, began researching for a dance piece called “Cowgirls.”
Her partner, professional opera singer Steve Stull, said after the performance that Goddard became intrigued by not only the cowgirls, but the large country and western orchestras that used to tour the country.
“All these guys were trained singers, and this is perfect for me and my friends,” Stull said, explaining what brought the group together.
The Opera Cowpokes have put out both a compact disc and a DVD, and the revolving cast of musicians includes dancers, opera singers and the Opera Cowpokes Orchestra providing the backing music.
Stull said the format includes both original and reworked versions of classic cowboy songs, as well as bits and pieces of classical opera pieces inserted into medleys. Meanwhile, there are spoken word portions wherein the performers read fictional letters, inspired by Goddard’s research, that help tie together the world of opera and the world of the cowpoke.
“It’s all in keeping with how we’re turning things around, mixing things around,” Stull said.
John Sikora and his son Emmanuel, of Cortlandville, sat watching the performance in lawn chairs behind the veterans memorial in the park. During one medley, Emmanuel, 15, identified part of “Va Pensiero,” an opera by Guisseppe Verdi.
“I know Mr. Stull very well, and I’ve seen him perform at the Binghamton opera,” said Sikora, who has also been involved in youth performances with the Arts at Grace series.
Emmanuel Sikora’s 10th grade Cortland Junior-Senior High School classmate Sky Wilson joined the group on stage for a song detailing the graphic account of the death of a cowboy, filled with melodramatic imagery like “blood on the saddle,” and “won’t return to the brothel no more.”
It is all good entertainment, of course, and these sad cowboy ballads were counterbalanced by the fun ones, such as the reworking of the old song “Papas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” which was transformed into “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Opera Singers.”
“Don’t let them wear costumes and makeup and stuff; make ’em wear holsters and play kinda rough,” the lyrics of the song said.
Sally and Rob Kamerling, of Cortland, sat in the shade near the entrance to the park, and Sally Kamerling said they had been to other performances in the series.
“It’s marvelous, really, and a lot of the song we remember,” she said. “It is unique, with the opera voices and these familiar songs that you just think of as country western. It’s just a perfect environment for a Sunday afternoon.”
The Opera Cowpokes wrapped up the show with a square dance song that morphed into the gospel song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
David Neal, the organ and choir director at Grace Episcopal and the founder of the Arts at Grace series, has performed with the Opera Cowpokes several times in the past and once again took the stage with the group on Sunday.
Neal said that this performance would be the last of the Arts at Grace series until the fall, and was the first performance of the series to be held outside.
The performance was funded, in part, with some of a $500,000 New York State Music Fund Grant, and Neal said the grant is intended to bring professional and amateur performers together, which is why Skye Wilson joined the cowpokes on stage.
“Our main thrust is to raise funds from business, individual donations and grants so we can offer these events to the community free of charge,” as part of the Arts at Grace series, Neal said.




Bertini to join Gates Foundation’s agricultural efforts

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — Catherine Bertini, former executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme, is going to help the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation develop its plan for encouraging agricultural development in impoverished countries.
Bertini will join the Agricultural Development team within the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Development Program as a senior fellow, the foundation announced late Friday.
In a telephone interview this morning from Seattle — where the Gates Foundation is based — Bertini said she originally became involved in the foundation after hearing a speech by Dr. Raj Shah, director of Agricultural Development at the Gates Foundation.
“He gave a speech in October in Des Moines at the World Food Prize ceremony … I’m invited back to that each year,” Bertini said.
Bertini, a Cortland native, was named the 2003 World Food Prize Laureate for achievements with the WFP in helping ending famine and decreasing hunger.
“He gave a speech about what the Gates Foundation is planning in terms of agriculture, because it’s still in the planning stages, and I was asked to make comments on his speech … He invited me to come out to Seattle last year and see what they were doing.”
According to a news release accompanying Bertini’s appointment, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation works to help all people lead healthy, productive lives. In developing countries, it focuses on improving people’s health and getting themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty.
In the United States, it seeks to ensure that all people — especially those with the fewest resources — have access to the opportunities that they need to succeed in school and life.
“Catherine will help us work with our partners to develop a long-term, global effort to dramatically improve agricultural productivity and create opportunity for small farmers, particularly the women who often make up more than 70 percent of the agricultural labor force in Africa and South Asia,” Shah said in the news release.