Nancy Preis says she's still a little overwhelmed when she realizes Opera in the Ozarks is getting its biggest wish granted. Thanks to the Walton Family Foundation, the Eureka Springs opera company will get $34 million to design and construct a new theater.
"Jim and Lynne Walton have been attending the operas and remember Helen Walton's enthusiasm for the opera," says Preis, who is general director for OIO. "We've been working with the Foundation for five or six years to get this project off the ground.
"It originally was considerably less grand," she adds, "but as our need grew for a more comfortable theater for both our patrons and our artists, the Foundation stepped up with significantly more support."
Preis promises that the new theater, which will seat 300, will retain the intimacy and connection with nature that has always been part of the OIO experience. But it will also be usable year-round, "offer artists a stage worthy of their talents" and "be a welcoming space for audiences to enjoy an intimate and high-quality performance." She promises the changes will be "transformational."
Opera in the Ozarks started as a summer camp in 1950 and has evolved into a music mecca that attracts student singers and musicians from across the globe, many of whom go on to significant international careers. Alumni include Latonia Moore, Leona Mitchell and Mark Delavan, all of whom have performed at the prestigious Metropolitan Opera House. Alumni have also performed on international stages in Vienna, Paris and Rio de Janeiro.
Singers have been coming to Opera in the Ozarks for seven decades "because of the quality of our program," Preis said in a story marking the company's 71st anniversary. "Singers get to perform major roles, have the chance to sing with an orchestra, and get multiple performances to grow into their roles. Audience patrons come because of the quality of our music making and the intimacy of our performances."
"Opera in the Ozarks was the first place where I was able to sing leading roles. I learned what was needed as an opera singer in preparation, rehearsal and on stage," Justin Burgess, 2017-2018 Opera in the Ozarks alumnus and current student at Cafritz Young Artists at Washington National Opera, said in the news release. "A new theater will give students the opportunity to build roles and perform on a stage comparable to what the future holds for them."
"For seven decades, artists have traveled to Opera in the Ozarks on their music education journey," Jim and Lynne Walton said in the news release May 4. "A new theater continues this legacy by offering generations of future musicians and singers a new stage to showcase their talents."
"Opera in the Ozarks has trained singers in its current facility for decades with determination and great success," adds Joe Randel, senior program officer for the Walton Family Foundation. "The students who participate in the program deserve a stage on par with their talent."
According to the news release, the facility will also include a lobby for guests, an expanded costume shop and new faculty housing with multi-unit cabins. Construction begins this month. It is scheduled to be completed in mid-2025.
"People are surprised by what we put on the stage -- the level of singing is often extraordinary and the sets and costumes, while not lavish, are evocative of the time period and allow the audience to use their imaginations to fill in the details," Preis said previously. "One of the most fun aspects is the ability to meet and get to know some of the singers and to follow their careers as they move on. We have lots of audience members who have become opera travelers. They follow young singers they got to know at OIO and go hear them as they perform at widespread venues all over the country.
"It's important to note that not all our singers will become stars at the Metropolitan Opera," Preis cautions, "but all of them will continue to have music in their lives and will have learned valuable life lessons about collaboration and teamwork."
Opera in the Ozarks
OIO starts its 2023 season, featuring Offenbach's "Orpheus in the Underworld," Donizetti's "L'Elisir D'Amore" and Copland's "The Tender Land," June 23.