Think oxymoron. The English language is full of these apparent contradictions in terms used to enhance meaning. Phrases like, “only option,” “virtual reality” and “organized chaos” might come to mind. Add to that “Artsy Amarillo” and “Opera Cowgirls!”
A crowd of over two hundred welcomed the Opera Cowgirls, and their unique mashup of Grand Opera and Grand Ole’ Opry for a return engagement sponsored by “The Arts at WTAMU: A Subscription Series.” This event, which was the first of six, is a donor engagement program supporting the Sybil B. Harrington College of Fine Arts And Humanities at West Texas A & M University. Attendees got their belly full of culture and cuisine (it was fajitas).
This group’s one-of-a-kind music strips opera of alleged elitism by employing Nashville-approved vocalizations, which find a nexus in the human heart. Americanized, democratized and down-home, purists will hear the high art, and lovers of Waylon and Willie will hear the heartache. A survey of a few of their numbers will try to illustrate this oxymoronic admixture, but ‘ya jes gotta hear ‘um!”
The ladies introduce themselves in Pearlsnaps and Pearls, a reference to the buttons on western-style shirts and blouses and pearls, perhaps alluding to the “opera” strings of pearls popular during the Roaring 20’s, or just gettin’ gussied up for the Met.
The chorus, following a solo from each, intones, “You know that this cowgirl’ll take Puccini for a whirl. I’ve got pearlsnaps to go with my pearls.” All of the women, professional opera singers, demonstrate a twanging facility sure to satisfy any boot-scooter.
Founder Caitlin McKechney enjoins the full range of her mezza profunda to sing Mon Couer, Delilah’s lament from Samson and Delilah in which the seductress agonizes over finding Samson’s secret to his strength so she can save her people. A singing saw adds drama while Caitlin almost makes Delilah a sympathetic character.
This diva delight again takes the lead in Carmen’s Habanera, and is joined by Cowgirl colleague, Sarah Beckham-Turner, WTAMU music faculty professor and Amarillo native in a langourous L’amoure duet. Then segway to Dolly, singing “Carmen, Carmen, Carmennnnnnn: please don’t take my man just ’cause you can!”
Bizet could never imagine this combination. Dare we say that Nashville not only embellishes, but enhances this piece?
Carmen offers something entirely different when Sarah, using her cello, sings Micaela’s aria, Je dis que rien ne n’epouvante. This wrenching theme is a common country trope: my true love loves another, but I promised his dying mother I’d give him her love. Angst and heartbreak: these are perfect themes for grand opera, the grand ‘ole opry and for the world!
The Cowgirls also transmogrified Donizetti’s Una Furtiva Lagrima, a favorite aria for tenors, to a female duet with even more pathos. The deep passion is belted out in M’ama (She loves me!) like a declaration of a schoolboy crush, which ends with “I could die of love!” The ladies evoked the last in lyrical death throes.
What do you have when you have two sopranos who are trying to outsing one another? Why a Bell Canto catfight. Jessica Sandidge and Sarah walked among the audience taking turns singing A Vieux Vivre, sometimes called “Juliet’s Waltz,” from Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet. Juliet sings that when others speak of marriage, she says she wants only to live inside her dream where it is eternal spring. That meaning was somewhat obscured in the hissing and snarks.
Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus with hand claps? Why not! These are the Opera Cowgirls, and their rendition of this iconic Christian work took nothing away from the original, but added a punch and vibe, to which everyone stood, just like George II. The monarchy, in this sense, has been both countrified and Americanized without losing any reality.
And, speaking of pure country, in Bird Song, by the Wailin’ Jennys, the Cowgirls out-wailed the Jennys, in an adaptation more layered and nuanced, but still just as folksy. In this number, Jessica played the bird whistle. Other times she played the mandolin. Sarah on cello has already been mentioned, while Caitlin strummed and plucked the Banjolele. Mila, the primary accompanist, played several instruments, but mainly the Melodica.
It all made for a sound both the stage of La Scala and the Grand Ole Opry would find congenial. Which is quite an accomplishment, and makes the Opera Cowgirls unique and special. Go to YouTube and Facebook to hear more.
And this writer still hopes to hear these artists Texanize Wagner. The Valkyries could then sing Ye Ha! in trills and runs instead of Hoyotoho Heiaha!
Their performance here on the High Plains, where cowboys and Cowgirls rule, is a reason all of us can boast with a pure Panhandle brag,
Keep Amarillo Artsy
Keep Austin Weird
Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!