Cortina needed all her energy for the task that awaited her in 1972, when the University of New Orleans hired her to create a vocal performance and a vocal education program. It's largely for this accomplishment that she is being honored with the 2004 Lifetime Achievement Award at the Tribute to the Classical Arts, held Monday, Feb. 16, at the Hotel Monteleone.
"It was a Herculean task," she admits, "but it was so exciting!"
When she arrived at UNO, Cortina found one voice course with a collection of students ranging from graduate-level opera singers to neophytes stumbling over scales. Before the year was out, she had conceived the two programs, and the department graduated its first voice majors in 1975. Every vocal course in the undergraduate catalog bears her stamp, from Italian lyric diction to opera theater to a basic voice class for non-majors.
It stands to reason that a devoted educator has good teachers in her past. Cortina mentions many mentors who helped her along her path, including Ruth Falcon, a famous soprano who was coaching the glee club at St. Joseph's Academy at the time Cortina joined. Cortina and her family had just fled to New Orleans from Cuba, and Cortina, "at the very tender age of 16," was a quiet girl, still trying to master English.
"[Falcon] discovered my voice," said Cortina. "It was funny, because being a refugee, there was no time for songs. And although I enjoyed being in the glee club, I didn't want to stick out." Falcon needed one month to figure out who was producing that gorgeous coloratura soprano, because Cortina would pull her voice in when the teacher walked by. "But she finally discovered it. She made me wait after the glee club and said, 'You've got a wonderful talent!'"
Cortina talks about her path from her cozy office in UNO's Performing Arts Center, a room that's a testament to her many passions. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves along one wall are lined with musical scores, and on a shorter bookcase French, Italian and German dictionaries sit side by side. A small grand piano is wedged into one end of the room, and various nooks and shelves display a surprising array of anatomy models. The plastic rib cages, throats and larynxes are a reflection of her recent fascination with the mechanics of singing.
"I consider myself a voice scientist more than a voice teacher," Cortina explains.
The administration at UNO is well aware of the gem they have in Cortina and recently honored her with a fellowship for excellence in teaching. "Dr. Cortina has established an outstanding studio over many years and continues to be a wonderful draw," says Jeffrey Cox, chair of the Department of Music. "Students from Costa Rica as well as all parts of the country come to work with her and study with her, and enjoy her insights into vocal health and vocal education." Cortina has worked to bring students from Latin America by creating exchange programs and by promoting the UNO programs during her frequent recitals in Miami, Mexico, Nicaragua and beyond.
The UNO Opera Program also flourished under Cortina's direction during the 1970s and '80s, until budget cuts forced it to close the curtain. Cortina saw the cuts as part of a disturbing pattern: "Whenever there is a budget cut, at least in Louisiana, in this city, the first thing to go is the music."
She worries about the effect such policies have on younger children in public education. "The students are not getting that window opening in their tender years, their formative years." Cortina is determined to nourish the appreciation of classical voice, and plans to reestablish the UNO touring opera company to bring performances to the high schools. She wants to show the students that opera isn't about waiting for the fat lady to sing anymore. With a little luck, some of those students will find their way to UNO's voice program.
"To me, it's just fabulous to take a virgin voice, like I call it, somebody at 17 who is just beginning to sing or who has never sung, and to turn them into this beautiful voice," she says. "To me, that is the most exciting thing."
This unselfish devotion has given her influence a ripple effect, which spreads as her students fan out through the world. "I have lived," she notes, "through their voices."