Hidden Talents: A Singer, A Critic and an Artist Reveal Their Creative Alter Egos

Mary Lou Pagano

Mary Lou Pagano, fourth from left, with hands clasped, performing in the Lyric Opera’s production of “The Pearl Fishers” this past spring. (Lyric Opera of Kansas City / photo by Elise Bakketun)

The Lyric Opera Singer is Also a Math Whiz and Award-Winning Equestrian

For 33 years with the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, chorister Mary Lou Pagano has thrived on the transcendental potential of two-way communication.

“When you’re performing, you’re communicating with an audience, and that audience is communicating back with their laughter and clapping,” Pagano says. “It’s an exchange. You’re learning from each other. And it’s very exciting.”

The veteran vocalist has experienced such onstage give-and-take over the course of some 90 Lyric Opera productions, including such diverse personal favorites as “Die Fledermaus,” “La Bohème,” “Cold Sassy Tree,” “John Brown” and this past spring’s “The Pearl Fishers.”

But opera is only one of Pagano’s talents, albeit her highest profile capability. She’s also an award-winning horseback rider and a gifted math teacher, aptitudes that additionally supply her with the vital two-way communication she craves.

“I might sing a little tune to my horse and watch his ears flicker — oh, they’re listening to you,” Pagano says. “And I’ll do that with my math students. If they’re getting a little antsy, I’ll just find a math formula and make up a song to help imprint it. I’m also getting them to kind of lighten up and realize math is not so straight and narrow.”

Saddle Up

While music was an early love of Pagano’s while she was growing up in New Jersey and Maryland, so were horses.

“As a little girl, I would see a horse in a field, and I just thought they were beautiful,” she remembers. “Very athletic and statuesque. Majestic.”

In addition to regular piano lessons, by seventh grade Pagano was riding horses and taking jumping lessons. She stayed in the saddle through high school but stopped riding to attend Syracuse University. “I would have loved to keep riding,” she says, “but the money had to go to school.”

Pagano graduated from Syracuse with a Master’s in Education degree, including extra course work in music and math. Years would go by without Pagano even getting on a horse. On her way to California in 1977, she stopped in Kansas City to visit friends and never left town. In 1986, the same year she joined the Lyric Opera, Pagano became a high school math teacher at the Barstow School, where she’s worked ever since.

In 2008 came Pagano’s horseback riding reawakening.

“I one day woke up and said, ‘I really want to return to horseback riding,’” she recalls. “I had the money to do it. I just needed to find the right barn and take lessons. And I really wanted to show again, if possible.”

With the help of trainers Grace Petty and Bill Coy at Lee’s Summit Equestrian horse stables, Pagano has distinguished herself with awards that include three top-10 placements at the Canadian Nationals in the categories of Country English and Arabian Costume, and a top-10 prize in Arabian Costume at the U.S. Nationals for Arabians in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“I like the Arabian Costume probably best,” she says, “because the Arabian horse is in costume, and you’re in costume. It’s almost like you’re going back to a different century. You’re sort of playing a character, like in opera.

“And you’re trying to show this horse off to the best of his capabilities. The horse is being judged. (The rider) is not being judged. But if you don’t ride well, the horse won’t perform well. So you have to be in tune with this horse. I feel like singing an aria when we canter out, but of course you can’t do that.”

Still, Pagano’s current mount, a lively young gelding named Koyote, and other assorted horses have heard plenty of her singing. How about a German lied by Schumann? Or Brahms? Perhaps a chosen steed might prefer Schubert? If nothing else, Pagano’s private serenading can only strengthen the bond that improves communication between a rider and her horse.

“It’s all two-way communication,” Pagano says. “You’re communicating with the horse, and the horse is communicating with you. He tells me if he’s happy with what I’m doing with him. His ears will go back if he’s mad. His tail will flick if he’s angry. He’ll try to buck you off. But they want to please you if you’re riding them well and you’re not annoying them.”

No matter how well-planned, the action in a competitive equestrian event can change suddenly, as it can for an opera singer onstage, Pagano says. In either case, it’s best to be prepared for anything.

“Everything can change in an opera from moment to moment,” she says. “When you’re onstage, you have to be very well aware of what’s around you, your blocking. And you may be singing in French — very fast French. And riding these very active horses, I have to be aware of how I’m balancing and adjusting to the horse and adapting to him all the time.”

When it’s treat time after a ride, the horses are still communicating with Pagano as well as each other in their stalls.

“I’ll bring a bag of carrots and apples — they love fruit,” Pagano says. “But before I can even reach the aisle, the first horse on the end sees me and starts nickering — communicating, making sounds. And pretty soon all the way down the aisle, like 20 horses later, they’re all talking to each other: ‘She’s coming with the treats.’”

Math’s Greatest Hits

As a full-time high school math teacher with another opera or horse show ever on the horizon — plus singing in the choir at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, which she’s been doing for 38 years, and also recently trying to fit in time for a return to the piano and more guitar practice at home — how does Pagano manage it all?

“A lot of people do lots of things,” she demurs. “I work with such talented people at the Barstow School, and they’re so multi-talented there. It’s exciting to be there with people who have so many interests.

“But the bottom line is that I really love what I’m doing. And when I love it, I don’t think about what time it is or when the next break will be. I’m just in the now. Without the challenge, I’d be bored. So everything has to be challenging to me.”

Which isn’t to say that Pagano doesn’t know how to ease up a bit, even when trying to get across a key point to a room of pre-calculus students.

“I had one particular class where I would start humming something and they would join in,” she says. “I hummed some Elton John — I think it was ‘Daniel’ — and they recognized the tune. They sang back to me all year long. Our theme song was Earth, Wind and Fire’s ‘September.’ Because if they were getting really bored, I’d play that song on the computer and they’d get up and dance.”

Talk about two-way communication.

“Then they would play some songs for me. I didn’t know what they were, but they would say, ‘Listen to this.’ And then if it was someone’s birthday, I’d sing ‘Happy Birthday’ and hit a high A or a high C at the end. Which they seemed to like.

“It’s just sheer elegance,” she says. “You can’t have music without math.”

–Brian McTavish

Robert Trussell

Theater critic Robert Trussell on duty at the Kauffman Center. (photo by Donna Trussell)

KC’s Veteran Theater Critic is Also a Guitar Picking, Harmonica Blowing Singer/Songwriter

Regular readers of “KC Studio” know that Robert Trussell’s byline on a theater review means they can expect crisp, insightful prose and little tolerance for a weak script or uninspired staging.

What most people probably don’t realize is that the same Robert Coleman Trussell is a guitar picking, harmonica blowing singer/songwriter with two CDs to his credit.

“Texas Gothic” (2005) and “Juice and Jive” (2008) are both chock-full of original tunes that fall under the broad heading of Americana. The kind of songs that can only come from growing up in South Texas, working at liquor stores in Austin and LA during his “wilderness years” and eventually landing at “The Kansas City Star,” where he spent more than three decades covering movies, music and theater.

“I’ve never made a living at music,” Trussell points out, “but I never wanted to quit doing it either.”

From the beginning, there were guideposts — his older brother’s Bob Dylan albums, his father’s jazz LP collection and quite a few Saturday nights spent listening to the Grand Ole Opry with an otherwise Bible-thumping grandmother.

“It’s really just old country and blues traditions, my take on that kind of stuff,” he explains. “I’m pretty much self-taught and not that skilled or versatile. I’ve just learned tricks to make me sound better than I am.”

Kelly Werts, who produced and played fiddle, banjo, pump organ and other instruments on both discs, begs to differ. He says, “Robert has his own approach to the guitar and it doesn’t sound like anybody else.”

Troubadour Trussell also brings another important asset to the party — one that artist and former “Downbeat Magazine” contributor James Brinsfield admits caught him by surprise. “He has great pipes,” according to Brinsfield, “a singing voice that seems effortless and natural.”

But both agree it’s his way with words that ultimately leaves the biggest impression. Whether it’s a bank robbery gone wrong in “All the Way to Topeka,” a car that won’t “Go Go Go” or a checklist of misbehavior that leads to jail time in “Billy Got Bad,” Trussell’s songs teem with colorful characters and human frailty.

And they’re not all set on the southern plains. Noah herds animals through some of the verses of “Two By Two.” “That’s What the Sidewalks Say” comes straight from city streets he walked during his long pursuit of journalism.

“Being a professional writer, Robert can really turn a phrase,” Werts says with admiration, “but it’s always in service to the song. He’s never flowery.”

In return, Trussell praises his producer for dusting the tunes with plenty of studio magic. And he never fails to shout out another key participant in this late-in-life adventure — his wife, Donna. A noted poet herself, she co-wrote two songs and edited a number of others. “She doesn’t hold back,” Trussell grins. “And she helped make some of the songs a lot more poetic.”

She’s also at the heart of “Waiting Room Blues,” the last track on “Juice & Jive,” which indirectly addresses her bout with cancer through a series of simple, strong, heartfelt affirmations.

“I’m not a religious guy, but Donna pointed out that a lot of the songs have a spiritual side, or at least some sort of spiritual longing. If I was going to sum it up philosophically,” he muses, “it’s the awareness we’re all just grains of sand, and however much we end up doing, it’s unlikely anyone’s going to remember much about our human activities.”

Years ago, Trussell did perform occasionally at folk-friendly venues like The Foolkiller and open mic nights at The Point (where as he notes, Iris Dement got her start). Now, despite his retirement from “The Star,” he’s seldom seen onstage except for an occasional house concert or Porch Fest gig. In fact, he had no shows at all in 2018, conceding that he “might be slightly agoraphobic. I don’t like big crowds.”

Nonetheless, Robert C. Trussell’s musical reach has extended farther than he ever imagined. “We thought it might get played on KKFI,” he says of “Texas Gothic,” but both it and its successor ambled onto radio station playlists across the U.S. And thanks to the power of the internet, he’s even been in “heavy rotation” as far away as Belgium and the Netherlands!

“I guess it’s a testament to the wisdom of waiting so long. I’ve had plenty of time to refine the songs,” he chuckles. It’s been very gratifying.”

To hear more of Robert Trussell’s music, visit his YouTube channel www.youtube.com/user/RTRUSSELL

–Randy Mason

Mike Lyon

Mike Lyon created this portrait of his father, “LEE,” a 35×21” acrylic painting on tinted paper, in 2009. (from the artist)

The KC Art World Knows Him as a Digital Printmaking Ace, But He Also Crafts – And Plays – Beautiful One-of-a-Kind Ukuleles

Mike Lyon is best known for his instantly identifiable, large-format prints of portrait heads and nudes. Using a dizzying, alchemical array of techniques, Lyon is heralded as a “father of post-digital printmaking,” a hybrid art form combining older analog media with new digital technologies. A computer programmer since the 1970s, he seamlessly melds centuries-old printing techniques with the digital, high-tech world of ShopBot CNC engineering.

Lyon’s massive, 5-by-12-foot CNC machine hums away for hours in his studio, delicately painting his carefully coded artworks. He also travels the United States and Asia, teaching artists to create woodblock prints using the newest post-digital methods.

So it’s something of a surprise to find a separate space in Lyon’s studio building designated solely for the hand-fabrication of ukuleles, each one painstakingly crafted by the artist.

“I started making ukuleles after my dad died, on Feb. 25, 2016,” Lyon said in a recent interview. “After dealing with his estate and the disposition of his personal effects, I was depressed. My own work is technically demanding and highly conceptual, and I didn’t have the energy to think about it. I wanted to use my hands. I played the violin and guitar before, and after doing some research I thought ukuleles would be easy to make and easy to play, because they have only four strings.”

Teaching himself complex, new skills is part of Lyon’s personal and professional history. His father, Lee Lyon, owned and ran M. Lyon & Co., a cattle-hide processing business with one of the world’s largest tanneries. He was also an amateur photographer who had a darkroom in the family basement.

“Although my father could be strict,” Lyon recalls, “he gave me free rein, from ages 11 to 17, to do whatever I wanted in the darkroom, and that was terrific. I’ve never been afraid to experiment.”

After graduating from high school, Lyon went to Philadelphia, where he got a BA in architecture and fine arts from the University of Pennsylvania in 1973. “As a 20-year-old art student, I started hanging out in an elderly violin maker’s workshop. I rejected his suggestion that I quit school and become his apprentice, but with some regret; I always liked the idea of making stringed instruments.”

After graduation, Lyon returned to Kansas City and got a BA in painting from the Kansas City Art Institute. Although working constantly as an artist, he had a young family and also needed money. He began working full-time at his father’s plant. Besides learning all aspects of the business, Lyon developed and designed ventilation and computer systems for the company. “I may not have loved the business world, but I love coding,” he says. “There’s something about writing a procedure and then having the machine do what you want it to do.”

He moved to New York City in 1976, where he continued to design software and computer systems for two different commodity trading firms. When he was 26, he returned to Kansas City and the next year bought his father’s business, which employed more than 100 people. (The older Lyon retired to Aspen with his wife, Joanne. He pursued ceramics and studio glass making, while she opened the Joanne Lyon Gallery, which ran for 16 years. Both served separately as president of the Anderson Ranch Arts Center.)

Lyon continued to expand and modernize M. Lyon & Co., and in 1991 he sold the business. “At that point,” Lyon says, “I began making art full-time.

“A year before dad died, my kids gave me a ukulele kit as a gift. I learned rudiments of construction by building the kit.” He also got on YouTube and looked through various how-to manuals on building stringed instruments. “The Daily Ukulele to Go – 365 Songs for Better Living” is now part of his library, next to books on Japanese woodblock prints (which he collects), post-digital art and The Mueller Report.

Every ukulele Lyon makes is unique, of different size, carved and shaped from various kinds of wood, individually braced and possessed of its own tonality. Some have intricate hand-carved designs embedded on their surface, while others resemble female torsos.

“Although there are challenging design considerations in choice of materials, dimensions, bracing of top and back, joinery, finish, etc. — most of the work is experiential rather than intellectual. Lots of gluing, clamping, sanding, finishing, and lots of aesthetic decisions which must be felt. Each ukulele ends up having its own personality,” Lyon says.

“About two years or a little longer after dad died, I suppose I had recovered sufficiently so that I began painting and drawing and woodblock printmaking again. But I’m still working on some instruments, including guitars.”

Although his hobby is not that well-known, Lyon has sold a number of his instruments. “I was recently commissioned to build an electric guitar in the image of the band’s logo. Wow! What a cool thing that was.”

Lyon is quite the ukulele, violin and guitar player himself. He and his wife, Linda, began practicing violin around 1993 and joined the Kansas City Civic Orchestra, where they still perform, around 2001.

If there is an artistic through-line in Lyon’s oeuvre, it is that he is as comfortable with the hand-crafted as he is with computer programming. Besides his two CNC machines and ukulele/guitar studio, his building includes a hand-built stationary bed printing press, where he can produce work up to 4 by 8 feet, and an entire dojo for martial arts training, custom designed and fabricated by Lyon. He also has a black belt, and he teaches there.

“I do what I want intensely,” he says.

See Mike Lyon’s artwork at mlyon.com.

–Elizabeth Kirsch

Above, from left to right: Mary Lou Pagano in Arabian costume rides an Arabian horse at the Arabian and Half-Arabian National horse show in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2011 (photo by Ferrara Photography); Robert Trussell did a little strumming at home in early May (photo by Jim Barcus; Recently Mike Lyon worked on a quarter-size guitar for himself in his studio in downtown Kansas City (photo by Jim Barcus).

KC Studio

KC Studio covers the performing, visual, cinematic and literary arts, and the artists, organizations and patrons that make Kansas City a vibrant center for arts and culture.

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