Try crossing the voices of Renee Fleming and Elizabeth Leonard with Tammy and Reba and you have some conception of the Opera Cowgirls.
Founded by mezzo Caitlin McKechney, who has played the serial seductress Carmen more than once, as a way to bring more opera to the public, the Opera Cowgirls make grand opera fun, and on par with country western without distraction or distortion.
The New York City based group rejoined their token Texan, Sarah Beckham-Turner, an Amarillo native, now at WTAMU, for their first Texas performances. Maria Lindsey, associated with the Met told me “Finally I’ve gotten to wear cowgirl boots and people don’t look at me weird!”
A bipolar musical orientation is nominally inherent, but while here the ladies showed they had more sides, singing at the First Friday Art Walk at the Sunset Galleries, at an upscale jazz bar on Polk Street, at a local church, and presenting a heavy-duty memorial to WWI.
On Mar. 4 at the Fine Arts Complex Recital Hall, these ladies of song presented Letters That You Will Not Get: Women’s Voices From the Great Warm a stunning vocal testimonial to the trauma wrought by war on wives, mothers and the women soldiers left behind.
Dr. Kirsten Volness composed this work around the libretto by Susan Werbe and Kate Holland. The voices, from solo to quartet sang with an eerie accompaniment of violin and cello. The librettists drew on letters from both the Allies and the Central Powers, because every male in war is a mother’s son or likely some woman’s significant other. The casualty lists from the battlefield don’t factor damage to the human heart on the home front.
The letters and songs spoke of isolation, of anguish, as well as coping in a dark time. A few examples convey the powerful role women played. Dear Alice is composed of thoughts and wishes of mothers of servicemen, which asks the question towards the end, “Can this truly be the will of God?”
“The Dancers” has both a literal and a surrealistically figurative sense. One dances in spite of death, to escape the presence of death and just because you’re alive.
Sarah Beckham-Turner, with broom in hand, sings Salonika: “My husband’s in Salonika and I don’t know if he is dead!”
The singing, both solo and ensemble has an edgy relationship to the strings and is almost off – key. War results when harmony is destroyed, a destruction wreaking emotional havoc on the home front.
This haunting, impactful work required the immense vocal talent of these professional ladies to make it work. And it worked to magnify the reality that though the Great War concluded over a century ago, we still feel and deal with its consequences.
“Now for sometime completely different!” made famous in Monty Python. In what constituted a complete artistic volte face from the first of the program, the Opera Cowgirls started ‘dancin with who brung’em.’
For instance, Donizetti’s Una furtiva lagrima from L’elisir D’Amore crescendoed in trio to the overwrought, overdone Momma, si Momma as if in Branson or the Grand Ole’ Opry.
Jessica Sandidge, who also sings with the Met, held forth in full sparkle coloratura in Sempre Libera from Verdi’s La Traviata accompanied by banjolele and cello, the aria losing nothing from the creative acoustics.
And O mio babbino caro by Puccini in Gianni Schicchi loses any hope of sappiness when accompanied by a trio of kazoos.
Three of the ladies sing soprano, but Caitlin McKechney is a mezzo who deeps down to contralto. Her range and richness facilitate a range of harmonies, in evidence when three of the women sang Hallelujah Chorus, the voices sometimes appropriating the melody within the same phrase.
If purists are outraged by this approach, they falsify an alleged desecration and need to understand that the goal of any artist is to expand both outreach and contact.
The Opera Cowgirls have shown that the integrity of opera remains inviolate in this democratized, two-stepping rendition and these professionals can down-home their voices and arrangements to reach out all across this country. However, I’d like to hear them try this with Wagner.
The Opera Cowgirls are a treasure, for which Amarillo can take partial credit. Hopefully Sarah Beckham-Turner’s relocation to WTAMU will catalyze return engagements.
What a performance, spanning the profound to the proletarian. Their art form is rare and deserves more recognition: they just need to get out of the Big Apple frequently and come to Cowboy Country.
For the ladies we say Bravi, and for WTAMU and all who made this possible we say Bravos!
But in encore we say with ovation, “Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!