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The Sounds of Music

Coming from a singing family where music was an elemental part of her life from a young age, Denise Ritter Bernardini says it was only natural that she would choose singing as a lifetime effort. She began her professional life as a studio musician in Nashville, but wanted to return to school and pursue a degree in music. After teaching in public schools for three years, she decided to enter the master’s program at Texas Christian University, which had a partnership with Fort Work Opera. This partnership provided your artists the opportunity to be in the opera apprenticeship program while also enrolling in the university’s graduate fellowship program.  “To my shock, I won the audition,” she says. And the rest, as they say, is history.

While singing with the Fort Worth Opera and Bernardini, was also section leader with both the opera chorus and a local church, had her debut at Carnegie Hall in New York with Skitch Henderson and performed the Merry Widow with Encore Arts, a traveling group. “At that time, there were a lot of traveling opera companies,” she notes, “but that is no longer the case.”

Part of the requirements for her degree in vocal pedagogy included an internship at an allergist’s office where Bernardini learned about the physiological and anatomical aspects of singing. She says she became fascinated by that part of her education and decided to pursue an opera career and teach voice. She knew she would be able to pursue her interests at the university level and so set out to get her doctorate, studying with Marilyn Horne along the way.

Ritter as Violetta in La Traviata

Bernardini’s scholarship follows three distinct paths: first she is an opera singer, with her other pursuits following ; second is her interest in a teaching method that incorporates science and pedagogical techniques; third is her passion for the history of vocal literature and cabaret in particular.

A singer’s voice changes continuously, Bernardini explains; it is never the same. She says that she continues to see a coach and is now singing better than ever before. Part of this change process is hormonal, she adds, but a singer never stops learning and studying. “Use it or lose it is so true vocally,” she notes. “It is not like riding a bicycle.” The range of scholarship required of a singer is extensive, Bernardini comments, and includes music theory, playing an instrument, music history from the Renaissance through the modern era, anatomy, vocal literature, acting, stage deportment, diction in multiple languages and how to write about music. Physics also enters the picture because the travel of air, acoustical sound and the Bernoulli effect Her background, knowledge and experience have led her to concert performances and opera roles with companies around the globe.

Ritter in Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen

Ritter in Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen

The knowledge acquired for her degree has made Bernardini a diagnostician and given her the ability to treat vocal faults. She says she is fascinated by how the voice can be manipulated to make it more resonant and how voice problems can be resolved. Some of those problems include hoarseness, nodules on the vocal chords, breathiness, holes in the voice and especially bad habits. Anatomical knowledge and an understanding of the effect of allergies can lead her to help students overcome some of these deficits. “Sometimes the problem is muscle paralysis, or vocal chords not meeting correctly,” she explains. “We have to teach the person how to exercise the vocal chords, somewhat like being a physical therapist for vocal chords. But it can be difficult because you can’t look down someone’s throat or feel what the problem is.”  Sometimes she says you just have to send the person to a doctor for a more in-depth physical diagnosis.

Bernardini says she is not a voice therapist but has worked closely with physicians and therapists to help people recover from surgeries, nodes and thyroid and throat cancer treatments. Helping to overcome voice problems is both rewarding and frustrating, she comments. “It is very frustrating if we can’t figure out what the problems are, and it can be truly devastating if someone has an irreparably damaged voice.”

Close to Bernardini’s heart and her talents, however, is her research on cabaret, a topic on which she has become an international expert. Cabaret takes its name from the place—a bar, bistro or restaurant with a stage for performers who can be comedians, jugglers, singers, actors, instrumentalists.  It is a form that bridges the traditional and contemporary divide. Coming out of the chaos of World War I, the cabaret format had no rules.

Cabaret originators thought they were being very art nouveau in breaking all kinds of performance rules, developing a new art form and rebelling against ‘the man’,” she explains. Many composers we think of as “classical” got their start in cabaret. Three of those who initially made their living by writing music for cabaret performers are Erik Satie, Arnold Schoenberg, and Kurt Weill.  Francis Poulenc and Benjamin Britten, embracing the philosophy of art imitating art, wrote music in cabaret style. Both wrote instrumental, orchestral and vocal music and were seen as innovators

Through her study of cabaret, Bernardini finds that cabaret songs have given a rich palate of emotions—funny, sad, witty, dark, sexy, innocent—but above all they are about the human condition. “This ability to tell the story of humanity is the one thread that has not changed in cabaret. To be cabaret is to be versatile, culturally relevant and historically expressive. It is difficult to pin down whether cabaret has influenced society or if society has influenced cabaret. The constant process of creativity and artistic evolution is the essence of cabaret. Cabaret is proof of the vibrancy of popular culture,” she concludes.



Denise-RitterDenise Ritter Bernardini is an assistant professor of music who appears on both the concert and opera stage in music of many periods. She has sung in Verdi’s Requiem, Handel’s Messiah, Pergolesi’s Magnificat, Bach’s Missa in A Major, Dvorak’s Te Deum, and Mozart’s Requiem. She has also appeared as  Violetta in La Traviata, Mimi in La Boheme, Yum Yum in The Mikado, Gilda in Rigoletto and other leading roles. She was looking for a home in a culturally active locale for an art song festival that she founded—The University of Toledo welcomed them both. She has also created a one-woman show that looks at cabaret history and performance. She was invited to present the show at the International University of Global Theater in Austria and at the Toledo Museum of Art.



Bio-weapon in the lettuce patch

The common cottontail rabbit — ubiquitous in forests, suburban woods and backyard gardens — seems an unlikely agent of bioterrorism. However, Jason Huntley in the Medical Microbiology and Immunology Department has rabbits on his radar; they’re the best-known reservoirs of the deadly pathogen and potential bio-weapon he‘s studying.

Francisella tularensis is a bacterium high on the U.S. government’s list of Category A Select Agents, a rogue’s gallery of molecular bad guys that also includes anthrax, botulism and plague. Capable of surviving in species that range from an amoeba in a freshwater stream to flies, ticks, mammals and humans, F. tularensis is the cause of tularemia, which can kill an adult in as little as five days.

Particularly worrisome, Huntley says, is how easily F. tularensis can be aerosolized. (Documented cases include those caused by inhaling the aftermath of sick or dead rabbits caught in lawn mowers.) “The bacteria could easily be dispersed by a small device,” he notes. “And all it takes is one Francisella bacterium to kill a human, whereas for anthrax it’s about ten thousand spores.”

Huntley and his group study aspects of proteins that exist on the bacteria’s surface. One such characteristic of these proteins is their role in virulence: How can F. tularensis cause life-threatening disease so quickly? “We now have evidence that these proteins are involved not only in the basic survival functions of the bacterium, but also in attaching to host cells, invading them and killing them,” he says.

“We also study the bacteria from a defensive standpoint, for vaccine development. Because Francisella kills so quickly, the body doesn’t have time to react, to create the antibodies and recruit immune cells necessary to kill the invader. Developing a vaccine would allow the human body to have those defense mechanisms already in place.”

Studying such deadly pathogens has profound implications for other diseases, he adds. “If you can understand how they cause disease, you can start to ask questions about how many other bacteria and viruses work: pneumonia, GI infections, skin infections. The list goes on and on.”

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, Huntley’s work is under consideration by the U.S. Department of Defense.

Dance of life and death

Plants, insects and fungi in every sort of ecosystem have over time developed complex, mutually beneficial interactions that allow delicate coexistence. The pesticide/herbicide/chemical fertilizer revolution, however, has overridden these ecological relationships.Insects on leaf

Natural may be best, however, according to Dr. Stacy Philpott, UT assistant professor of environmental sciences, who’s been researching an organic coffee farm in Mexico. There, an intricate dance of interdependence exists between an unlikely set of partners: a feisty ant species (Azteca instabilis); the green coffee scale insect; and the predatory lady beetle. All three — plus some potential players waiting for a cue — play critical roles in bringing the coffee crop successfully to market.

The ants and scales form a symbiotic relationship in which the ants protect the scales from predators and parasites. In return, the scales secrete a sweet honeydew that’s eagerly taken by the ants. It’s made more complex by a predatory lady beetle: Both adults and larvae feed on coffee scales. Azteca ants can protect scales by fending off adult beetles, but can’t make a dent in the larvae.

ants on plantThe ants’ success at repelling another scale enemy, a parasitic wasp, inadvertently chases away other wasps that attack beetle larvae, adding to the system’s complexity. The ants have their own enemy, too: a parasitic fly that can limit their presence in the ecosystem. Likewise, the lady beetles can make an impact on ant numbers by preying on the scale and limiting the available honeydew.

Perfect balance is achieved when the ants are limited by beetles and parasitic flies. Both ants and beetles thrive, the latter keeping the crop-damaging scale insects under control.

But wait — scale insects can also be attacked by the white halo fungus. That same fungus, though, is an enemy of coffee rust, a disease that in the past wiped out entire coffee-growing regions. The rust exists in Central and South America; white halo fungus is a powerful rust eradicator only in places where it’s already mounting a major attack on scales — places most likely to be where the indefatigable Azteca ants are protecting their honeydew-producing scales.beetle larva

The complexity of the relationships on the successful coffee farm in southern Mexico  wouldn’t have become clear without close research, Philpott says. “Studying these interactions is important for understanding how ecosystems work, especially how agricultural systems work,” she adds. “Industrial agriculture is largely aimed at the target pests — controlling an insect or fungal disease by applying something. It wreaks havoc on biodiversity, and causes loss of habitat, contamination and related health problems.

“One solution to these problems is looking at this extremely complicated agricultural system that has so many interlinking components and asking how we can achieve natural forms of disease- and pest-control using complex food webs.”

Too few fish in the sea?

Fish feces seem an unlikely tool to help preserve the world’s much-stressed coral reefs. John W. Turner Jr. in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology knows better; he and his team of researchers have been using fecal material from parrotfish in the Virgin Islands to link their stress with that of the reefs.

The project, funded in large part by conservation groups, centers on cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal gland in response to stress. The hormone serves as an excellent biomarker and stress monitor for both mammals and fish, and is detectable in their waste matter.

For a fish, stress goes beyond the presence of hungry predators. Nitrite — present in water due to fertilizer runoff — creates the condition as well, eventually impacting their numbers. That in turn affects the reefs. “One of the biggest threats facing coral reefs today is that we’re seeing much lower diversity in fish populations, lower reproductive success and slower growth rates in those who do reproduce” says Turner. “The bottom line is fewer fish.”

It‘s a fraught line because fish play a critical role in reef ecology. Take parrotfish: Grazing on the coral’s surface, the colorful fish eat away algae that unchecked would block sunlight from the coral and prevent vital photosynthesis.

“Parrotfish are part of most coral reef systems worldwide, so if you can find a reliable biomarker for the parrotfish family, you can apply it to almost any coral reef system,” Turner explains.

Cortisol was the first stress biomarker the researchers identified by analyzing parrotfish fecal matter. Taking a further step, they began looking at gene expression associated with stress response, and with the fish’s reproductive success. “We’d like now to know what genes are being turned on and off by stress. If we know, we have a template to tell us what type of stressor is affecting that area,” Turner says.

Recently the team was able to isolate RNA from four specific genes. The discovery encouraged them to begin developing a hierarchical biomarker system to detect and isolate individual stressors in an environment.

That would create a powerful tool for everyone interested in conservation, Turner notes. “It’s to the advantage of resort builders, for example, to know what the conditions are before they begin to build near a pristine coral reef area, then what they are as they build, open and operate.

“The relationship between developers and biologists used to be antagonistic, but that’s counterproductive. Everybody, including the public, benefits from knowing about the environment before and after. It makes constant monitoring possible.”

Far from spurning fish poop’s Ew! factor, Turner is excited: “Coral reefs are in bad enough shape as it is, and we’d all like to stem their degradation. We think this is the path to do it.”

Black conquistadors and the politics of resistance

Beatty-MedinaPirates of the Caribbean notwithstanding, the concept of being marooned is not an exclusively shiver-me-timbers phenomenon. Dr. Charles Beatty Medina in the Department of History has been studying entire marooned societies in Latin America, made up of escaped African slaves. One such group fled from a stranded slave ship in the 16th century and created independent communities along the Pacific coast of South America in present-day Esmeraldas, Ecuador.

“Escaped slaves in that country come as a surprise to most Americans, who equate the practice of slavery with America and the Caribbean,” notes Beatty Medina, who has long studied Afro-Latin slavery and resistance movements. “Before the term maroon was used to describe people left stranded, it referred to people who escaped from Spanish settlements. They were called cimarrones.”

These marooned Africans in Ecuador may have resisted colonial Spanish rule by their acts of escape, but they ended up establishing their own space within the colonial structure. In their official reports, in fact, the Spanish described the Africans as a new type of conquistador.

The parallel isn’t entirely accurate, Beatty Medina feels: “What would in fact happen in this particular area was that the Africans subjugated some Native communities, intermarried with them and over time became indigenized. So conquest and all that comes with it don’t really apply here.”

In a fascinating development, the Spanish legitimized the maroons, signing peace treaties with them. “This was very early in the process,” says Beatty Medina. “Spanish administrators realized that these African had become effective masters over this region, something the Europeans themselves, with their guns and steel and horses, had not been able to do despite numerous attempts.”

Taking a pragmatic view, the Spanish were willing to work with the Africans as long as they were amenable to becoming legitimized under Spanish rule. That was part of a pattern, Beatty Medina notes: “What the Spanish couldn’t attain by violence, they would achieve by diplomacy.”

Beatty Medina is examining numerous marooned communities in the same historical period, in Mexico, Santo Domingo, Panama and Colombia. “Some groups, like those in Panama, allied themselves with Europeans competing with Spain, like Sir Francis Drake who came in the 1570s to capture Peruvian silver as it was carried across the Panama straits,” he says.

Given their relatively small numbers and wide dispersion, maroons have been studied largely as a history apart, not within the larger run of events, he says. “My primary aim now is trying to understand how escaped African slaves whose trajectory seems to have nothing to do with the overall colonization of the Americas came to have integrated roles in that process, largely by choice.”