Alltech, UK Opera join forces to help Haiti

June 12, 2010

About 10 days after a massive earthquake struck Haiti on Jan. 12, Pearse Lyons decided to go take a look. He flew to the Dominican Republic, then took a helicopter into Haiti. “You don’t need to be there long to see the tragedy,” he said.

Like so many others, the founder and president of Alltech wanted to help. But he knew it would do little good in the long run to throw more aid money into one of the world’s poorest, most-beleaguered countries.

What Haiti needed, Lyons thought, was sustainable economic development, jobs for its people and hope for its children. And because he is a businessman, Lyons thought that helping Haiti could also be good for his company, which mostly sells natural animal nutrition supplements in 120 countries.

Pearse Lyons

Pearse Lyons

After four months of work and a lot of help from friends, Lyons and Everett McCorvey, director of the University of Kentucky’s Opera Theatre program, sat down Friday to discuss their plans for Ouanaminthe, a city of 100,000 people near the border with the Dominican Republic in northeast Haiti.

Lyons’ company is buying 10 acres of land and plans to construct a new building for a local school with about 350 students. A new medical clinic and an Alltech factory that will initially employ 20 or 30 Haitians also will be built.

McCorvey and his graduate students plan to create Haitian Harmony, a music training program for the school’s children. Haiti has a strong music culture, and Alltech employees found when they visited the school that each classroom wanted to welcome them with a song.

McCorvey and his students plan to have a choir of 35 or so Haitian children organized in time to bring them to Lexington to perform at the opening ceremonies of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games on Sept. 25.

He hopes the choir will eventually become like the African Children’s Choir, a touring ensemble that can draw global attention to Haiti’s needs — and potential. “These kids could get to do something for themselves and their country,” he said.

Lyons, who has made two more trips to Haiti since January, will be going back later this month with McCorvey to work on the project. UK Opera students Eric Brown, the first winner of the Alltech Vocal Competition in 2006, and Manuel Castillo also will go to begin the Haitian Harmony program. They will be joined later by other UK voice students.

Alltech has a long history of setting up businesses in distant lands. This venture makes sense, Lyons said, because although Alltech has no facilities in the Dominican Republic, it sells about $2 million worth of products there each year. Most of those products are made in the United States or Brazil, but there is no reason they couldn’t be made in Haiti instead.

“When could you find a situation where your first order is for $2 million?” Lyons said. “That’s the sustainability part of it. And I think that $2 million will quickly become $4 million, where otherwise it might have become just $2.2 million without this focus.”

Everett McCorvey

Everett McCorvey

Alltech chose Ouanaminthe for its efforts on the advice of local business contacts and Catholic missionaries. Because the city is in a part of the country less damaged by the quake, it is more ready for economic development.

The Alltech plant will begin by hiring Haitians to mix animal nutrition supplements from concentrates. “It’s a pretty manual process,” said Dan Haney, Alltech’s director of manufacturing. The company already has the equipment it needs, sitting in a warehouse in Springfield.

Lyons envisions other Alltech business opportunities that could employ Haitians. For example, the company buys several hundred pounds of coffee to produce its new Bluegrass Sundown bourbon-and-coffee drink. “Why couldn’t that coffee be grown in Haiti?” he said.

“There is a branding opportunity here, and it is a branding opportunity with a cause,” Lyons said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Alltech’s initial business and philanthropic investment in Haiti will be about $500,000, which includes $100,000 donated by Alltech employees and matched by the company. Other money is coming from Alltech suppliers and customers. Lyons also is getting help from a fellow Irishman, Denis O’Brien, who owns Haiti’s main telecom company, Digicel.

Lyons and McCorvey see the potential for creating close ties between Lexington and Haiti — economic, cultural and human. “This project could be life-changing for them,” McCorvey said, “and maybe for all of us.”

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Aria man has advice for entrepreneurs

February 1, 2010

Everett McCorvey performs at "A Prelude to A Grand Night for Singing" in May 2008. The "Prelude" and "Grand Night" events have become big fundraisers for UK Opera Theatre and popular community events. Photo by Tom Eblen

Everett McCorvey isn’t a businessman; he’s a musician and a teacher. He has started a lot of companies, but not the kind you usually associate with entrepreneurs.

McCorvey is a skilled entrepreneur nonetheless, having accomplished the unlikely feat of turning Lexington — a city best known for developing racehorses and basketball players — into a center for developing opera singers, too.

Since McCorvey came to Lexington in 1991, he has transformed the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre program by attracting public support and private donations. He said the program he began building with a $20,000 loan now has an annual budget of more than $1 million and an endowment approaching $5 million.

In his spare time, McCorvey started the American Spiritual Ensemble, which has toured the world and recorded several albums in an effort to preserve music inspired by slave melodies. The group began another tour last week with a sold-out performance at Frankfort’s Grand Theatre.

McCorvey recently formed Global Creative Connections to produce opening and closing ceremonies for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. He said he wants those productions to include as many Kentuckians as possible.

Last week, McCorvey, with backup from the American Spiritual Ensemble, gave a lecture at UK about entrepreneurship. He offered many insights into the attitudes, behaviors and strategies that have helped him succeed.

Some of them might work for you, too, even if you have little interest in business — or opera. That is because entrepreneurship isn’t necessarily about making money; it’s about figuring out ways to achieve your dreams.

McCorvey, 52, was born into segregated Montgomery, Ala., and lived around the corner from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. His mother was a librarian. His father worked overnight for the post office, ran a grocery, dabbled in real estate and sprayed homes for bugs. Plus, he was active in church and the local civil rights movement.

“My father was a tremendous role model for me,” McCorvey said. “My only problem was that I didn’t have the energy to keep up with him.”

McCorvey’s interest in music was sparked by a student trumpeter at Alabama State University who rented a room in their home. McCorvey persuaded his father to rent him a trumpet so he could learn to play. Performing in school bands, he later switched to baritone horn.

When McCorvey auditioned for the University of Alabama, he mentioned, as an afterthought, “Oh, by the way, I also sing.” Professors soon convinced him that his primary talent was singing, so that’s where he focused. “I had to work very hard to develop that talent,” he said.

McCorvey earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from the University of Alabama, then spent years in New York and abroad, performing in a wide variety of genres and venues — opera houses, Broadway theaters, TV commericals. That’s when he met his wife, singer Alicia Helm McCorvey.

He learned a lot about the business of show business before returning to Alabama to earn a doctorate. “And because Alabama was not like New York, I learned that if I wanted to do something in music, I had to create the opportunities,” he said.

McCorvey joined the UK faculty after teaching at a small college in Knoxville, Tenn., but a mentor warned him that opera would never be appreciated in Kentucky.

“I don’t know if I took that as a challenge, or what,” McCorvey said. He knew that creating an outstanding program would require recruiting the best singers available and producing professional-quality operas to train them.

While serving on the UK Athletics Association’s board, McCorvey studied the basketball program’s strategies and applied them to his goals.

“I thought that I needed my own athletics association,” he said. “Babies here leave the hospitals in UK sweatshirts. I thought that what I need to figure out is how to make Kentucky babies grow up loving the arts.”

He noticed that Lexington was filled with amateur singers and others who appreciate music. So he convinced some of them to create the Lexington Opera Society, which raises money and rallies support for UK Opera Theatre.

Entrepreneurship, like an opera production, is all about collaboration, he said. It requires engaging people who have skills you don’t have and creating a vision others want to share.

McCorvey said his job was best described by the late comic actor Charles Nelson Reilly, an opera lover he met while spending time with the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

“He said, ‘If it’s important to you, your job is to make it important to them,’ ” McCorvey said. “That’s basically what I do.”

  • McCorvey’s advice for entrepreneurs:

    • Enjoy what you do. If you don’t enjoy what you do, do something else because life is too short.
    • Surround yourself with positive spirits.
    • Celebrate the amazing talents of others.
    • Be patient, be persistent and pray constantly.
    • Don’t try to do things that aren’t in your skill set.
    • Work harder than anyone else at the things you do well.
    • Engage people who have skills you don’t have and collaborate with them.
    • The more collaborative you are, the more you can achieve.
    • Engage your community in every way possible.
    • Find the good and praise it. (A tip from his friend Alex Haley, the late author of Roots.)
    • Stay away from ‘energy vampires.’
    • Embrace your fears and go with them.
    • Stay focused on your dreams and goals. Stop doing things that don’t support them.
    • Be good and kind to everyone; you never know when it might come back to you.
    • When a door closes, a window opens. Some doors should close; celebrate that.
    • Expect good things, and look forward to the next opportunity for something special to happen.

Rediscovering slavery at My Old Kentucky Home

August 2, 2009

BARDSTOWN — Gerald Smith, a Lexington native and University of Kentucky history professor, had never visited My Old Kentucky Home State Park before last summer.

Smith arrived early for a speaking engagement at the Nelson County Public Library and had a couple of hours to kill. So he and a student decided to take the park’s tour of Federal Hill, the Rowan family mansion where, legend has it, Stephen Collins Foster was inspired to write Kentucky’s state song.

“The people were very nice,” Smith said. But he noticed that the tour guide, dressed in a hoop skirt, kept referring to the “servants.”

“I finally said, ‘You mean the slaves?'” Smith recalled.

The tour didn’t include the mansion’s attic or basement, where slaves lived, or small rooms beside the kitchen, where they worked.

Finally, Smith asked where the slaves were buried. In the cemetery beside the garden? No, the guide said. Out back. Way out back.

Smith and student A.J. Hartsfield walked across a field to a stand of old trees. Underneath, inside a split-rail fence, were 22 small, unmarked stones and a plaque dedicated in 1945 to Judge John Rowan’s “faithful retainers.”

“As we approached the entrance to the little wooden fence, this guy was looking for his golf ball,” Smith said. The cemetery is in the bend of the 13th hole of the park’s golf course. Balls frequently land there.

“There was nothing sacred about it,” Smith said of the slave cemetery. “It was painful. It was sad.”

Smith went home and shared his experience with two other prominent African-Americans, Lexington writer Frank X Walker and Everett McCorvey, the UK Opera Theatre director who has sung My Old Kentucky Home many times in concerts here and overseas.

They decided to approach state officials with a simple message: We must do better. And, with the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games about to focus the world’s attention on Kentucky, we must do it quickly.

“Folks sing the song; it stirs up such emotion,” Smith said. “It celebrates the state’s history and culture and hospitality and traditions. But this is the way we remember the people who built and lived and worked at this symbol, this monument, this shrine to Kentucky. The African-American presence here has been erased.”

Smith, McCorvey and Walker were hardly the first to complain. But their message seems to have been heard — loud and clear.

“We have already taken a number of steps to interpret things better,” said Gerry Van der Meer, the state parks commissioner. “There’s a bit of uncomfortableness, naturally, about slavery. But it’s a fact. It’s a part of history. We’re embracing this.”

Several changes are planned for My Old Kentucky Home. And Van der Meer has ordered a review of how African-American history is interpreted at all state-run parks and historic sites.

Historically, a raw nerve

My Old Kentucky Home, the place and the song, hold special significance, both for Kentucky’s international image and its complex history of race relations.

The mansion is one of Kentucky’s most recognizable landmarks, depicted on both the state’s postage stamp and quarter. It is the state’s most-visited historic site, with more than 55,000 people touring the mansion each year.

My Old Kentucky Home is the most famous song about the state, sung for an international television audience by more than 100,000 people in the Churchill Downs grandstand before the Kentucky Derby each May. But it wasn’t until 1986 that the word “darkies” in the song’s lyrics was officially changed to “people.”

Foster published the song in 1853, as Kentucky was in the cross-hairs of the national debate over slavery that would lead to the Civil War.

While many people love the song for its romanticized view of Kentucky, they rarely sing past the first verse. The complete song, which Foster originally called Poor Uncle Tom, Good Night, is actually about a slave being “sold down the river.”

While researching My Old Kentucky Home, Smith came across a journal article by the late Thomas Clark, Kentucky’s most eminent historian, published in 1936. It discussed parallels between the song and the controversial, anti-slavery novel of Foster’s time, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Many whites have always tried to portray slavery in Kentucky as somehow more humane than in the Deep South, but abolitionists of the 1850s argued just the opposite, Clark wrote. That’s because slavery in Kentucky was more personal.

Plantations were smaller, and Kentucky slaves had more interaction with their owners than in many Southern states. Whippings and runaways were common, and tens of thousands of Kentucky slaves were separated from their families each year and sold in the South for profit as the cotton, sugar and rice industries grew.

“It is significant,” Clark wrote more than 70 years ago, “that the author’s use of a title obscured his context sufficiently to cause Kentuckians, to whom Uncle Tom’s Cabin was anathema, to take the song to their hearts and claim it as their very own.”

For years after state officials opened Federal Hill to tourists in 1923, black men were hired to walk around portraying Foster’s song characters “Old Black Joe” and “Old Uncle Ned.”

“They fit that standard stereotype of the happy servant who was there to welcome the white guests to the mansion,” Smith said.

He sees the 1945 cemetery plaque honoring Rowan’s “faithful retainers” as part of the effort to soften Kentucky’s collective memory.

“If we allow the site to exist the way it is now, then we perpetuate the myth that slavery was a benign institution in Kentucky,” said Smith, who has been working for years on the Kentucky African-American Encyclopedia project. “This is not about compensatory history. It’s just about history.”

Park changes planned

Officials are working on several modifications at My Old Kentucky Home State Park, where the mansion has been meticulously restored and chimes broadcast Foster tunes across the grounds.

Tour guide scripts are being revised to reflect research on slaves at Federal Hill, who numbered from two to 100 at any given time between the 1790s and 1865. Interpretive displays are planned as money becomes available.

Eventually, the park would like to have audio tour equipment to supplement its small guide staff.

Park Director Alice Willett Heaton is seeking an archaeological survey to find cabin foundations and other evidence of where slaves lived and worked. It is thought the cabins were located near the amphitheater where a Stephen Foster musical has been performed since 1958.

Safety and accessibility issues may keep the attic and basement closed to visitors, Heaton said. But there are discussions about converting one of the rooms beside the kitchen into a place to explain slavery at Federal Hill.

Van der Meer said trees will be planted to screen the slave cemetery from the state park system’s most popular golf course.

“Somebody’s family is buried there,” Van der Meer said. “We want that to be treated more respectfully.”

Heaton is looking for money to build a path from the house to the cemetery. The park master plan she developed in 1987 called for the path, as well as moving the 1930s golf course further away from the cemetery.

She got money a few years ago to move a fairway that went between the house and cemetery. But she hasn’t been able to move the other hole, or build the path.

“It’s always been a money issue,” Heaton said. “But I’m thrilled with Dr. Smith’s interest. This could be a real opportunity for us.”

Smith said he has been pleased by the response from state officials. He plans to work with them to make sure changes are made.

Smith said he wants Kentucky’s international image to be positive — but historically accurate. “For me, it’s about telling the rest of the story,” he said. “So far, we’ve only been telling half of it.”

Perhaps enough time has passed, enough progress has been made, that both black and white Kentuckians can begin coming to grips with slavery and a racist past.

“I’m excited about the future,” Smith said. “I’m excited about the cemetery, about the possibilities and ways of including African-American history in that story of My Old Kentucky Home.”

As a historian, Smith acknowledges the difficulty of accurately interpreting African-American history at My Old Kentucky Home. Little physical evidence remains. Records are sketchy, and much is based on oral tradition.

But, he notes, Federal Hill’s very association with Stephen Foster is based on oral tradition among the Rowans, who were the songwriter’s cousins. There’s no written evidence that Foster ever visited the mansion, much less set his song there.

“We know the slaves were there,” Smith said. “But that other fellow, the one they’ve got the statue to out in the garden, we’re not sure about him.”

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