Christie Hageman Conover was 16 or 17 years old when, for her grandmother’s 80th birthday, she learned to sing Patsy Montana’s “I Want to be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” complete with the yodeling.
This weekend, at concerts in Billings and Bozeman, she’ll be singing that song again as part of her “Women of the West” show with Bozeman pianist Stefan Stern. Later in the month, she’ll be back in her hometown to perform Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 with the Billings Symphony Orchestra.
Conover, 32, is a 2002 graduate of Billings Senior High School who now lives in Denver with her husband, Ryan Conover. She is also a professional soprano who has sung with opera companies in Colorado, Minnesota, California and Montana. Last fall she made her professional international debut, performing with the Komische Oper Berlin in China.
Conover gives a lot of credit to the music teachers she had in Billings, who taught her, she says, that “you can’t do it for fame, you can’t do it for money. You have to do it because you absolutely love it.”
One of her first big influences was Cheryl Pittack, the music teacher at Highland Elementary School, who taught her how to read music. She said Pittack was the kind of teacher that students had strong feelings about, positive and negative, because she was “just a challenger.”
In high school, Conover learned a lot from choir director Scott Corey. And when Corey found out Conover was going to be back in Billings this month, he asked her to adjudicate at the Billings District Music Festival at Skyview High School, which Conover has agreed to do.
Conover also studied with the late Don Pihlaja, the longtime choral director at Rocky Mountain College.
“He recognized the talent in me and entered me in a lot of national competitions when I was in high school,” Conover said.
Those associations and more will be on her mind when she performs this month in Billings and Bozeman. Conover said she came up with the “Women of the West” show after talking to a friend she met at the University of Colorado Boulder, where Conover earned a master’s degree in music.
Her friend was a Colorado history buff and encouraged Conover to sing songs by and about women who were part of her heritage as a Westerner and a Montanan. With that germ of an idea in mind, Conover began putting together a recital last year for National Federation of Music Clubs competition.
Conover said she wanted a recital that was themed and marketable—something she could take on the road after the competition. And thus was born “Women of the West,” a mix of opera, musical theater and art song inspired by Belle Starr, Calamity Jane, Annie Oakley and Baby Doe Tabor. And of course, to round out the show, Patsy Montana’s yodeling cowboy song.
Conover connected with pianist Stern, music director of the Montana Ballet Company, through her sister, who is a friend of Stern’s. Conover said she’s heard “some really fabulous things” about Stern, but they’ve yet to meet. Professionals that they are, they plan to rehearse for the first time on the day of the Moss Mansion show.
That is scheduled for Friday at 7 p.m., with self-guided tours of the mansion museum starting at 6. Tickets are $30, or $55 per couple. The performance is part of the 30th anniversary observance of the Billings Preservation Society, which maintains the Moss Mansion. Tickets are available online, at the museum front desk or by calling 256-5100.
In Bozeman, the pair will perform Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Cikan residence, 31 Hitching Post Road. Tickets are $20. For reservations, email firstname.lastname@example.org. or call 579-1983.
Then, on Saturday, April 16, Conover will sing the soprano solo of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony No. 2 with the Billings Symphony Orchestra and Chorale. The performance, at the Alberta Bair Theater, will be recorded for later broadcasting and will feature live close-ups of musicians on stage. Go to the theater website for tickets.
The symphony performance is sponsored by a National Endowment for the Arts grant that will also support outreach activities by Conover while she is in the area.
Conover said she will be doing outreach at Morin and St. Charles Indian Mission schools in Pryor, and in Billings at Senior High and Lewis and Clark Middle School. Mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez, who will also perform in the Mahler concert, will be doing outreach at schools in Hardin and Crow Agency, and in Billings at Riverside Middle School. The two singers will team up for an outreach program at the Montana Women’s Prison in Billings, where they will work with the prison’s Praise Choir.
The outreach activities should feel familiar. Conover, when she was still Christie Hageman, was crowned Miss Montana in 2006 and competed in the Miss America pageant in 2007. During her time as Miss Montana, she traveled extensively in the state, talking at schools on “Music Makes the Difference.”
“I’ve described it many times as a year of accelerated growth,” she said of her reign as Miss Montana. “There were lots of skills and things I would have learned eventually … but it was definitely compacted into a very short time. You learn a lot about yourself, and you learn a lot about the world.”