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Arts and Entertainment

Springfield Regional Opera Celebrates 40 Seasons With Gala Concert

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(Poster design courtesy Springfield Regional Opera)
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Mansfield, Missouri native Michael Spyres is an internationally renowned tenor—he’s back (briefly!) in Springfield for a week following a production of Vincent D'Indy's epic opera “Fervaal” with the Radio France Music Festival in Montpellier.  Recently he was named Artist of the Year by The Professional Critics Syndicate of France, and he’ll make his Metropolitan Opera debut this season in the title role of Berlioz’s “La Damnation de Faust.” But Spyres “grew up” musically with Springfield Regional Opera, of which he is now Artistic Director. And he’s back in town for SRO’s 40th Anniversary season-opening gala featuring “Opera’s Greatest Hits”, tonight (Friday August 16) at 7:30pm at the Gillioz Theatre, 325 Park Central East.  Michael stopped by KSMU following an afternoon rehearsal yesterday to talk with me about the Gala and SRO’s 40th season.

Spyres readily acknowledges that SRO has experienced rocky times in the past 20 years, with questions about the company’s continuing viability.  But under his direction, and with his brother Sean (also a fine tenor) in the SRO business office and the company’s Education Director, Springfield Regional Opera has become something that Spyres says that “Springfield in general can be proud of. I can’t tell you how many colleagues and friends of mine have congratulated us and said, ‘I’m so proud for your town to be able to keep an opera company going for 40 years.’ Most towns our size have never even been able to start an opera company, let alone sustain it for 40 years.  There were rough times, but we’re doing better than ever, and we have such a bright future. And we’re doing so many exciting things, like we’re wanting to start touring and expanding with our opera company.

“The biggest thing is, I want to express our gratitude from Springfield Regional Opera to the Springfield community.”  He says SRO wouldn’t be here without the community support they have enjoyed. “Anyone can have one or two seasons with a donor that gives them a ton of money and just wants to ‘do a show.’ But to sustain 40 years, a serious opera company that’s really trying to change the art landscape in a town our size? That’s nearly unheard of. And we should all be proud of that here in Springfield.”

The “Greatest Hits” gala concert will feature some 16 current and former Springfield Regional Opera performers, all of whom are either local products or hail from somewhere in the state of Missouri.  “That’s the other thing that we can be absolutely proud of, is that we have massive amounts of talent here in our region and in Missouri.  People just don’t realize how good we have it here.”

Among the performers is soprano Jane Berg, who Michael Spyres credits with having sung the largest number of leading roles with SRO in the company’s history.  Probably second only to Berg in the sheer number of starring roles at SRO is Spyres’ wife, soprano Tara Stafford—“she’s done about seven roles,” he says.  Returning to Springfield is Missouri Bootheel native, dramatic tenor Limmie Pulliam, who receives high praise indeed from his fellow tenor Michael Spyres: “one of the most fantastic voices to ever come out of anywhere, to be totally honest—certainly the state of Missouri!  He’ll blow your socks off and make you start crying.”

Another returnee will be soprano Jane Ohmes Mirshak from Kansas City, who sang several leading roles at SRO in the 1990s. Says Spyres, “she had a wonderful career and has since basically retired. And she decided to gracefully come back and sing for us. It’s like a family reunion. And we have the wonderful (soprano) Jennifer Forni, who’s absolutely a gem that we have her here in Springfield. She’s truly one of the rising stars in the Verdi repertoire.”

Also appearing are two Missouri State University vocal music professors, mezzo-soprano Dr. Anne Marie Daehn and baritone Dr. Chris Thompson. 

“And myself? I’ll be singing one song or two,” says Michael Spyres.

Springfield native Jay Jackson, who has directed many opera productions around the country, will be the master of ceremonies for the concert, both introducing the singers and music as well as talking about the history of SRO.  (Jackson’s mother, Rosemary Jackson, served a long tenure on the music faculty at Drury University, and was one of the most prominent soprano soloists in the Midwest.  She also spent many years on the SRO Board of Directors.)

Spyres promises a quick-moving show, about an hour and forty-five minutes in length, with all the operatic excerpts running about 4 minutes each. “We want to make sure that we make opera approachable. Yes, opera is dense and makes you think, but it can be one of the most exciting and incredible experiences that you can’t experience anywhere else.” He compares the experience of a live opera performance to viewing a blockbuster film—but being a live performance, the viewer becomes a part of the action, “an active participant.”

Spyres also mentioned the SRO Orchestra under the company’s Music Director Dr. Christopher Koch.  “It’s a fantastic orchestra. I sing all around the world, and we can be very, very proud that we have three different orchestras: we have the Springfield Symphony; we have what’s now the Missouri Philharmonic (formerly the Springfield-Drury Community Orchestra); and we have the Springfield Regional Opera Orchestra, which is a mixture of, we hope, all of the best.”

The concert will include music that has actually been performed by Springfield Regional Opera over the past 40 years, so it will be a walk down memory lane. “We’re really excited,” says Spyres. “It’s going to feel like a big ‘thank you’ to Springfield. We’re going to be going back through the history, and showing clips, pictures and videos. Afterwards we’re having a reception just as a thank you, and it’s open for everyone.”

Tickets are $25 and $45; call the Gillioz box office, 863-9491 or visit www.gillioztheatre.com.

I couldn’t let Michael get away without talking about what he’s doing on the world operatic circuit.  Following his stint at the Radio France Festival in Montpellier, he says he worked on “a super-secret project that’s going to be coming out next year”, a new album on the Warner Classics label. “It’s a recording with my good friend Lawrence Brownlee, who is another really famous Rossini tenor. And we decided to make an album that we’re telling a little bit about—but next year it’ll be released by Warners.  Safe to say, there’s going to be a lot of Rossini on it, if not ALL Rossini! It’s some of the most sublime music ever written. A lot of people don’t realize how truly revolutionary Rossini was.”  Following his visit home Michael flies to London, literally “just a few hours after the (SRO) Gala. And I have rehearsals starting just an hour after I land in London for ‘Benvenuto Cellini.’” It’s Hector Berlioz’s very loose adaptation from the memoirs of the 16th-century Florentine sculptor.  Spyres sings the title role. His last production of the opera, also in London, was in an English translation as directed by film director—and former Monty Python animator—Terry Gilliam. This time he’s singing it in the original French… and Spyres admits that the English lyrics of the earlier production keep creeping into his mind as he works on the French version!

Meanwhile at home, SRO’s next big project is an original “pastiche” written by Michael Spyres, called “Too Naughty to Handel.” In it Spyres tries to tell the “true” story of Handel through the use of “bawdy English ballads that influenced Handel’s own music, along with his own oratorio called ‘The Triumph of Time and Truth,’ and mixed it together with some of his opera ‘Semele.’ Many people know very little about Handel—they just say, ‘Oh, he was that wonderful man that wrote ‘The Messiah.’” But if one digs below the surface, says Spyres, one discovers that “Handel was one of the most intriguing, audacious and most interesting people that has ever lived. But most people don’t know his story, and we’re trying to tell that.”  “Too Naughty to Handel” is performed November 1st at the Hotel Vandivort.

For information on SRO’s 40th anniversary season visit www.sropera.org.  And to learn about Michael Spyres, his website is www.michaelspyres.com.