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Feature

Jean del Santo and Calypso.

Horse and owner at play. Jean del Santo takes a moment to feed Calypso during a photo shoot break.

Celebrating the horse and human bond

By Pauline Oo

From M, fall 2005

Jean del Santo, a School of Music associate professor of voice, started riding as a 12-year-old in Michigan. She had two horses when she was in high school, but years had passed without any contact with horses or the opportunity to ride them. Then "just before my 50th birthday, I decided to buy myself a special present," says del Santo. Her gift was Calypso, a three-year-old bay gelding and an American Saddlebred-Arabian cross.

Fun-loving, curious, and a tad mischievous, is how del Santo describes her horse; and that's how Calypso would probably describe his owner. "Personality-wise, I had met my match," says del Santo. But ten and a half months after buying Calypso, del Santo, who once dreamed of being a large-animal vet, discovered she had acute lymphocytic leukemia. She began to look for a buyer for Calypso.

During her treatment and convalescence, while drugged with chemotherapy and wondering if she would live, del Santo read Linda Kohanov's The Tao of Equus: A Woman's Journey of Healing and Transformation Through the Way of the Horse. It spoke volumes about the therapeutic potential of contact with horses and the role horses have played in shaping human culture.

"[Kohanov] was able to connect so many seemingly unrelated trains of thought about the horse and weave them together," says del Santo. "I remember thinking it would be wonderful to create something similar to this book in a live performance format."

Today del Santo is in remission from cancer and has returned full-time to teaching. And Calypso never changed hand--del Santo couldn't bring herself to sell him. "The horse ... can get us centered again, physically, emotionally, and spiritually," she says. "Calypso was an integral part of my healing process."

Del Santo's dream of a performance centered on horses and humans is still very much alive. Next April, "The Horse in Art, Mythology, Literature, and Song: A Multi-Arts Celebration of the Horse/Human Bond" will premier at the Ted Mann Concert Hall on the Twin Cities campus. The audience will hear del Santo's sing specially commissioned songs, listen to University theatre students read poetry and literature, watch dance majors interpret mythological stories about horses, and see existing and newly created equine artwork projected on stage.

"The horse ... can get us centered again, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Calypso was an integral part of my healing process."

"Hopefully, this performance will be accessible to everyone," says del Santo, a classical singer who has performed with opera companies and orchestras across the United States and Spain. "For audience members who do not regularly attend arts events, [I hope they go away with] an appreciation of the classical arts. For those who do attend arts events, I hope they leave with an appreciation for the beauty of this wonderful animal."

More info

To contact Jean del Santo, call her at 612-624-5883 or e-mail delsanto@umn.edu.

Del Santo estimates that the production will cost $28,000. Earlier this year, the Minnesota Horse Council gave $5,000 toward del Santo's project, marking the first time in its 75-year history that the council has funded an arts-related activity.

With "The Horse in Art, Mythology, Literature, and Song," del Santo is looking to not only spark audience members' new and renewed interest in horses, but to highlight the nearly $1 billion horse industry in Minnesota as well as specific areas within the University, namely the West Bank Arts Quarter, College of Liberal Arts, and School of Veterinary Medicine, which has a new equine studies program and plans for a $10 million Equine Center on the Twin Cities campus in St. Paul.

In addition to corporate sponsorships and University grants, she hopes to attract individual donors to fund the production. "I'm looking for people who have a great love of horses or would like to honor a family member--human or equine," del Santo says. "No amount is too small. I hope that this project will bring together people from Minnesota and the Midwest who are passionate about horses and the arts."

Will the carrot- and watermelon-loving Calypso make a guest appearance on stage? We'll have to wait and see.