Muhammad Ali, Ronan Tynan to headline WEG opening

The Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games will open with an international display of stage and equine talent highlighted with an appearance by The Greatest, Muhammad Ali.

"He will be introduced as the world's No. 1 athlete," Everett McCorvey, executive producer of the opening ceremony, said Wednesday morning in the Kentucky Horse Park's outdoor arena, where the opening ceremony will be held Sept. 25.

The lineup for the grand opening is complete, including appearances by Kentucky-born country music star Wynonna Judd, opera star Denyce Graves, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, bluegrass music stars Cherryholmes and Irish tenor Ronan Tynan, who will close the ceremony with The Impossible Dream.

McCorvey said Tynan was specifically selected because athletes with disabilities will be part of the Games this year for the first time. Tynan, known for singing at New York Yankees baseball games, is a former Paralympian. His legs were amputated when he was a young man.

"Everyone we are bringing in has a passion for the horse," McCorvey said,

And in the spirit of the Games, the ceremony will feature equine entertainers such as the California Cowgirls Equestrian Drill Team, roping artist Vince Bruce, the Riata Ranch Ropers and Western entertainers Tommie Turvey and Dan James, with feats such as riding two horses with one leg on each.

"You're going to have the best equine athletes in the world competing," McCorvey said. "In the opening ceremonies, we didn't want to do events that would just relate to the competition. We thought it would be better to have pure equine entertainment, so we are not competing with the athletes in the stands. They are the best in the world. We want them to enjoy a show."

There also will be equine and artistic collaborations such as musician Sarah Lee Guthrie with equine star Stacy Westfall, and the Lexington Ballet with horse trainer Mario Contereras.

In all, the event will feature 1,500 people, 200 horses and 40 acts.

Leading the event will be boxing legend Ali, who lives in Louisville.

"He will take a lap of honor around the stadium," McCorvey said. "We're going to try to get him as close to the people as possible. He loves people, and people love him."

McCorvey recalled Ali's appearance during the opening ceremony of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics as "one of those iconic moments that you will never forget."

The opening ceremony for the World Equestrian Games is obviously on a smaller scale than the Olympics. But there will be many similarities, including a parade of nations and a program designed to highlight the host country.

Judd, who was born in Ashland, will sing My Old Kentucky Home in a salute to the host state. That will precede the parade of nations, which will be accompanied by a bluegrass jam session.

Following that display, the program will highlight New York, with Graves and Lexington-based opera stars Cynthia Lawrence and Gregory Turay; then travel to the West with an equine-heavy segment set to music by Aaron Copland, Elmer Bernstein's score for The Magnificent Seven and other works. Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie's daughter, and Westfall will highlight the Heartland segment, and a New Orleans segment will feature the American Spiritual Ensemble and Jazz at Lincoln Center.

On stage during the entire performance will be conductor John Nardolillo and the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra along with a 450-voice choir. The arena will feature art by Melody Farris Jackson of Winchester, whose work also adorns the program.

The team behind the production is largely the same crew that took the Kentucky Humanities Council and UK Opera Theatre's Our Lincoln production to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in February 2009.

"It's the Kennedy Center crew on steroids," creative director Peggy Stamps said.

That makes for a really big show.

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