Ozarks Traveler


The hills are alive with the sound of—opera? Horse feathers! The Ozarks are known for front porch fiddlin’, spoons clacking a rhythm, and toes tapping in time. Yet, as contradictory as velvet shoes on a plow horse, the lyrical tones of operatic voices float through the trees for eight weeks every summer at Inspiration Point, seven miles west of Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

For 61 seasons aspiring opera singers have gathered on the 66-acre wooded campus founded by Dr. Henry Hobart in 1950 as Inspiration Point Fine Arts Colony. In later years, the training camp for aspiring music artists became affiliated with the National Federation of Music Clubs (NFMC) in several states, including Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Illinois, Texas, Iowa, and Kansas. In 1993, the non-profit educational organization changed its name to Opera in the Ozarks, and now functions as a career preparation left for students who are college age and beyond. Every participant is afforded an opportunity to perform in fully produced operas, an evening of opera scenes, or an educational outreach program taken to several locations in Northwest Arkansas. Four weeks of rehearsal and four weeks of performances are under the supervision of a professional staff.

General director, James Swiggart, notes that within the past few years, Opera in the Ozarks was listed in Money magazine as one of the best summer opera festivals in the world. A recent roster included 43 performers who came from more than 20 states as well as Russia, Mexico, Israel, and South Africa. Live auditions for slots in the program are held in cities across the country, including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston.

These aspiring artists settle into the rustic dorms on campus property along a ridge between the clear-flowing White River and Beaver Lake. A professional staff, headed by artistic director, Thomas Cockrell, begins to build major operas from the stage floor up. A full orchestra joins the frenzied countdown two weeks prior to opening night.

A covered pavilion serves as the Opera’s auditorium. Since each summer offers different operas, new innovative sets of wood, fabric, paint, and paper-maché transform the stage. A skilled set designer and his apprentice saw, hammer, glue, and nail into wee morning hours. Singers, adding to their nine-hour rehearsal days, pitch in to paint.

While piano coaches tutor vocalists on phrasing and pronunciation, a lighting designer orders a professional theater package to light the stage. Support staff string wiring and help with carpentry on the set. Costume designers inventory hundreds of costumes and props stored in the upper story of an old red barn, the Opera’s first building.

On shopping trips to fabric stores, the design team gathers a supply of richly colored materials such as silk for the Japanese kimonos and sashes in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly or tapestry for the bedrooms setting in Le Nozze di Figaro. Past midnight, they once sewed and altered suits and dresses fashionable in the Appalachian Mountains during the 1950s for an American folk opera, Susannah, or for a contemporary version of The Mikado.

For one summer’s performance, the cast learned square dancing for a specific scene in the haunting tale of a beautiful young mountain girl scorned by the elders of her church. Every season, a combat team teaches singers and staff how to fake fist fights, snap a slap to the face, and simulate head lock choking and falling as though dead in preparation for scenes in productions.

The cast also presents children’s operas, which they often take to stages in nearby Ozark communities. At least one performance on the Opera in the Ozarks campus caters to children. Youngsters are invited into the dressing rooms to examine wigs and watch the application of stage make-up.

Year after year, the faces and voices change. Different operas grace the stage. But four weeks of behind-the-scenes groundwork remains constant. In morning’s first light and midnight darkness, Italian, French, or German arias ring from the ridges. Vocal and instrumental exercises from numerous practice cabins set among the trees pulsate the campus. Schedules go up for costume fittings, rehearsals, and slots with piano coaches.

In dressing rooms under the pavilion stage, dozens of wigs mounted on featureless Styrofoam heads line shelves and dressing tables, creating an eerie atmosphere of blank staring faces. Prior to performances, students shampoo and style the wigs. Actors drift in and out for wig fittings and trial runs on make-up. On performance nights, each person is responsible for his or her own wig and make-up.

Despite the pleadings of the costume designers for all singers to schedule costume fittings, one assistant notes that invariably on a performance night, a character switching from a principle role to the chorus runs in half an hour early to request a costume. “During the weeks of building the operas, we go to the costume shop at 9:30 a.m., and leave the next morning around 2:00,” the designer states. “After the performance schedule begins, we have the continuing problem of three leads alternating costumes. Alterations and repairs happen on the spot.

“Once a performer insisted on tightening a corset until the grommets popped,” she continues. “At the last minute, several of our staff sat on the dressing room frantically sewing on ribbons to get the costume through the performance that played above our heads.”

Yet, each summer, the audiences caught up in the soaring voices expressively supported by a professional orchestra have no idea of the drama played out behind the scenes. Someone cannot find his tights. He borrows from another. That actor, perhaps, not in an early scene, comes in late, and scrambles to complete his costume.

Another’s wig lacks a bow. A hat is missing. Or stitching unravels a costume’s ruffle and the actor and costumer scurry to find pins. As many as 20 young women in the chorus vie for mirror space before ascending back steps to the stage.

While pre-show jitters rise in the dressing rooms, guests gather for “opera talks” half an hour prior to curtain call. On a patio with a serene view of Beaver Dam nestled between Ozark Mountains layered in shades of green to blue, lead performers in the evening’s opera tell the story line and answer questions about their aspirations for a career in music.

As dusk settles over the Ozarks and a chorus of katydids warm up their wings, crowds move to reserved seating in the auditorium. The overture signals the moment the singers become the characters they studied, memorized, and practiced for four previous weeks. Scene after scene unfolds, weaving magic into stories that are sung. The Ozark hills, at least for a summer season, are alive with the sounds of opera.

In 2011, Opera in the Ozarks opens the season on June 24 with Die Fledermaus and runs through July 22. For a full month exciting operas alternate on the stage, including "Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro", premiering Saturday, June 25th, and Mark Adamo's "Little Women” opening on June 28. English translations projected on a screen above the stage enhance the audience’s understanding of French, Italian, German, and English lyrics.

Certain dates are performed at Arends Arts Center, Bentonville, Arkansas. For specific scheduling click on www.opera.org or call 479-253-8595.


Silver Dollar City's World-Fest
photos courtesy of Silver Dollar City Attractions

April in the Ozarks—dogwoods blooming, tender leaves on tree twigs, warm sunny days punctuated with gusty winds—and sometimes, black clouds dumpomg buckets of rain. Against nature’s pastel backdrop, Silver Dollar City opens its season with World-Fest, America’s largest international festival. In a setting that harkens back to 1890, the internationally-awarded theme park near Branson, Missouri, welcomes performers from more than a dozen countries around the globe. For 2009, the Zhejiang Monks of China fill the stage of the park’s Opera House performing an ancient balancing art never before witnessed in the United States. Yet, their production goes beyond two dozen acrobats and head-balancing monks with their incredible mastery of body and mind to include the grace and beauty of high-flying aerialists, soaring over the audience on streamers of red silk. Contortion artists, stick fighting, and the skill and beauty of plate spinning complete the show featured every day of operation during World-Fest.

A 28-member Peruvian music and dance troupe dedicated to the preservation of their history, culture, and arts entertains in Riverfront Playhouse. Their name, Jallmay, means protecting the land and sowing. Coming from different regions of Peru, the young artists stage a lively production that simulates an ancient presentation before their king. Brightly colored costumes, fleet and fancy footwork, and winning smiles pull the audience into the culture of this South American country.
In 2009, Silver Dollar City features its largest Ireland production show, Feet of Fire, returning by popular demand for World-Fest. Twenty-three energetic performers mix the pounding rhythms of Irish dance with the music of a lively band, vocalists, harpists and exhibitions of symbolic fire dancing. Elegant traditional Irish costumes in different colors and patterns adorn the champion step dancers.

New in 2009, Jenny Blackadder, Banjo Queen of New Zealand, demonstrates her unique frailing style of banjo, and a mastery of styles including traditional old-time banjo, jazz, Dixieland, and country. With a laid-back style, she endears herself to audiences in the Gazebo on Silver Dollar City’s Square. Two Ozark pickers join her with harmonic accompaniment and an easy banter. On her first trip to the United States, Blackadder’s musical counterparts delighted in introducing her to the wonders of Wal-Mart—a store that amazed her in offering underwear and lawn mowers in one shopping trip.

Also a new act for 2009, Los Pampas Gauchos, translated as the plains cowboys, excites audiences with a blend of traditional folk dancing of Argentina, combining nimble footwork with a demonstration of knives, born-bos, and boleadoras, all weapons used by the “gauchos” of South America. Invented in Argentina, the boleadora is a simple percussion instrument made of a weight attached to the end of a cord. The weights bounce off the ground and make exploding sounds like the crack of a whip. The boleadoreas were used by hunters to catch wild game on Argentinean plains—or “pampas,” as stated in the name of the three person family act. Demonstrations of the snapping boleadora, either in unison or in counterpoint to the dance steps of the performer, are traditionally executed by men. In Los Pampas Gauchos, Andres Sosa, his wife, and daughter, Andrea, keep visitors on the edge of their benches at the Boatworks Theater.

Returning to World-Fest, Russia’s Academic Band performs favorite tunes of traditional Russia, as well as America’s Dixieland. The brass band, always popular at World-Fest, is directed by Nikolai Novitchkov of the Ulyanovsk State Symphony Orchestra. The group, clad in Russian costume, performs at the Gazebo on Silver Dollar City’s Square.

The world-renowned Invaders Steel Orchestra from Trinidad & Tobago also returns to World-Fest for 2009. A traditional steel drum band, an icon for “sweet pan” since the 1940’s, their flashing smiles and a repertoire of classical, gospel, salsa, pop, reggae, calypso, and American Big Band tunes spellbind audiences who eagerly seek out the group at each World-Fest. For 2009, Invaders perform at the Dockside Theater.
Guests to World-Fest look forward to saying “g’day” to Australia’s Wayne Horsburgh. The artist, a regular at World-Fest for several years, Horsburgh has achieved country music success in his homeland, as well as in America. A consummate entertainer, he mixes his musical skill with a special Australian charm that has built a fan base for him at Silver Dollar City. Horsburgh performs during 2009 at the Gazebo on Silver Dollar City’s Square.

World-Fest would not be complete without Tastes of the World in the Frisco Barn. Each day of the festival, guests have opportunities to try international specialties such as Irish stew in a bread bowl, chicken fajitas, Italian calzone, moussaka, bratwurst or Polish sausage with German potato salad, Oriental bowls of stir-fry and General Tso's Chicken, plus desserts from around the world.

World-Fest 2009 ran from April 4 through May 3, Wednesdays through Sundays. For more information on the 2010 World-Fest, check http://www.silverdollarcity.com/.

Eureka Springs - a Step Back in Time
photos by Arline Chandler and Lee Smith

Eureka Springs, often called “Little Switzerland,” is a quaint town built into an Arkansas mountainside over a century ago. Shops, art galleries, antique stores, and restaurants offer hours of browsing in the downtown area. Trees form a canopy over the narrow streets lined with Victorian residences, bed and breakfasts, and historic hotels.

Within the area, numerous attractions abound for entertainment. Blue Springs Heritage Center with native gardens surrounding Northwest Arkansas’ largest spring is located only one and one-half miles from the entrance to Opera in the Ozarks. The non-profit training camp for aspiring opera artists produces three to four operas running each summer for a four-week period from late June to late July. From the Opera’s campus, Beaver Dam is sighted across the layers of Ozark Mountains. Beaver Lake, a Corps of Engineers project, is accessible for swimming, boating, fishing, and picnicking. The White River flows through the valley, offering canoeing and fishing. War Eagle Mill, a working water-powered grist mill on the War Eagle River, is a scenic day trip from Eureka Springs. The Bean Restaurant on the premises serves breakfast and lunch.

Thorn Crown Chapel, nestled in the Ozarks woods a few miles west of Eureka Springs, is open for daily visitation, weddings, and for Sunday services. Standing 48 feet among tall trees, its 6,000 square feet of glass windows and walls brings Mother Nature as close as the church pews.

Pea Ridge National Military Park, approximately 27 miles west of Eureka Springs, commemorates and preserves the site of the pivotal March, 1862, Civil War battle. The park encompasses 4,300 acres and includes a museum and hiking trails.

The Great Passion Play, located in Eureka Springs, is America’s number one attended outdoor drama. On-site attractions include the New Holy Land Tour, the Christ of the Ozarks statue, the Parables of the Potter, the Sacred Arts Center, the Bible Museum, and the Museum of Earth History.