Colorado opera singer honors Breckenridge poet Belle Turnbull for Women’s History Month
Breckenridge poet Belle Turnbull died in 1970, but her poems are finding new life in 2021. Next week, opera singer Kara Bishop-Grover and composer and pianist Lois Henry will perform their all-female song cycle, titled “Bellesongs,” based on Turnbull’s works.
The idea for the project came to Bishop-Grover in April shortly after the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The graduate student went home to Las Vegas when the Florida State University campus closed, and she found herself with canceled performance contracts and ample free time. Bishop-Grover, who is originally from Rifle, read the poems and found herself drawn to Turnbull’s deep love of the Rocky Mountains.
After 26 years of teaching at Colorado Springs High School, Turnbull retired and moved to Frisco in 1937 with her partner, Helen Rich, before settling in a log cabin on French Street in Breckenridge in 1940. Rich was previously the first reporter for the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph, and both authors continued to write in Summit County, focusing on the beauty of the Tenmile Range and the community’s mining lifestyle.
“A lot of her poetry has themes ringing of female empowerment of her time,” Bishop-Grover said. “I just really connected with poetry. I knew instantly when I read it that this was it.”
The coloratura soprano didn’t have much exposure to opera, let alone a formal music education, growing up in Rifle. She stayed busy with casually playing the piano by ear and harmonizing melodies with her mom at home. It wasn’t until she made all-state choir that she was convinced to pursue vocal performance at University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, which then led to an opera career in Germany. There, she met her now-husband and eventually moved to Florida.
Henry had previously worked with Bishop-Grover in 2019 for a song cycle on Viola Edwards, a Black nurse who opened a hospital in Pensacola, Florida, in 1922. Bishop-Grover enjoyed singing to Henry’s compositions so much that she knew she eventually wanted to collaborate again. Likewise, Henry mainly composed standard choir music and wanted to do nonfiction style similar to the Edwards project for Bishop-Grover’s voice.
Work on Bishop-Grover’s master’s recital could begin in earnest now that they had Turnbull as a theme.
“It’s nice to have a friend that’s a composer when you’re a singer, because you can be honest and collaborate,” Bishop-Grover said. “That’s the beauty of making a new piece of music. … It’s like a tailored suit or dress that’s made to fit you.”
Originally from Philadelphia, Henry spent most of her adult life in Boston and had never traveled to Colorado. The two went to Rifle and Breckenridge last summer to research and learn about the area. They even met up with Crested Butte’s David Rothman, who wrote the book about Turnbull that inspired the project.
“I feel responsible to Belle to not just honor her ideas but her careful attention to form,” Henry said. “She was careful with every single word that she wrote. There was nothing accidental about it. She agonized over every word as much as I agonized over every note.”
Though a phrase might be repeated, Henry added no other lyrics, and the song titles match the titles of Turnbull’s poems.
“Looking back, that trip was essential for me to have any concept of what I was doing,” Henry said, adding that she felt comfortable hiking in Colorado since it reminded her of the Appalachian Mountains — despite the altitude. The pair was cautious and outside whenever possible, especially since “Your lungs are your money,” singer Bishop-Grover said.
The rest of the creative process didn’t change much in light of the pandemic. Bishop-Grover would drive over two hours from Florida State in Tallahassee east to Niceville in the panhandle to rehearse with Henry like normal.
“The silver lining of COVID is I don’t know I would have thought of doing this without that happening,” Bishop-Grover said. “We all try to find a positive in COVID, and for me that was mine. I couldn’t imagine life without this music and without this poetry.”
Though sung in the vocal style of opera, the cycle technically isn’t that genre of work since there is no story, costume or sets to make it theatrical. But the songs all have the same theme of identity and finding one’s place.
The six-song work opens with an instrumental overture of Henry on the piano. It is followed by four poems that Bishop-Grover picked: “Mountain Mad,” “Observations Above Timberline,” “Mountain Women” and “Songs for Female Voices.”
“’Observations Above Timberline’ is clearly about the Tenmile Range and Colorado, but there are selections in there that really transcend, and you can connect to it at any level,” Bishop-Grover said. “It’s about knowing who you are.”
While Bishop-Grover is partial to the empowering phrase “Ladies keep your strangeness” from “Songs for Female Voice,” both are proud of the last song, “Answers to a Questionnaire.” Chosen by Henry, they consider it the foundation to the cycle with its universality about identity.
“Bellesongs” is just the final 20 minutes of Bishop-Grover’s 90-minute recital, titled “A Celebration of Women in Music.”
Bishop-Grover made sure that women did everything in the program. The composers of the work, vocal coaches Bishop-Grover used, the string musicians on a baroque piece, the people who transposed notes on sheet music, even the graphic designs of the advertisements were all women.
“We tried to embrace this idea of female empowerment with this project that we can make an outstanding and meaningful program, written by women, curated by women and performed by women,” Bishop-Grover said.
Four of the six Turnbull songs will be heard again at the fifth annual international Music by Women Festival hosted by Mississippi University for Women on Saturday, March 27.
Bishop-Grover and Henry hope to tour and perform “Bellesongs” in Breckenridge and elsewhere. The goal is to have the project live beyond the premiere by having it professionally recorded and the music published to inspire others to put their own spins on it.
What: “Bellesongs,” part of a Florida State University recital titled “A Celebration of Women in Music”
When: 5:30 p.m. Thursday, March 18
Where: Links to the livestream can be found at Kara-Bishop.com.
Cost: Free. Those who wish to donate to support the project can visit GoFundMe.com/belle-turnbull-song-cycle-project.
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