Opera in the Ozarks at Inspiration Point

Opera in the Ozarks at Inspiration Point is a summer program that trains opera singers and stages performances at Inspiration Point, overlooking the White River seven miles west of Eureka Springs (Carroll County). The company has always performed in repertory style, with each student learning several roles over the season. Generally, three operas make up the summer season, with at least one being performed in the original language.

Charles Mowers, a German-born engineer and inventor, came from Texas to the Ozark Mountains around 1900 to hunt wild game. He bought the land known as the Big Rock Candy Mountain in 1928 and began construction of a “castle” based on his memories of buildings along the Rhine River. Using stone quarried on the property, he incorporated an unusual building method he called Egyptian Rock Work.

After the stock market crash of 1929, Mowers abandoned his castle and returned to Texas. The castle was finished in 1932 by the Reverend Charles Scoville (1869–1938), a renowned preacher of the Disciples of Christ, who planned to use it as a retreat from his evangelistic labors. He named the site “Inspiration Point.” After his death, his widow gave the property to Phillips University in Enid, Oklahoma, for a conference and retreat center. Ten years later, however, this project was abandoned, and Henry Hobart, formerly dean of fine arts at Phillips, joined with Gertrude Stockard, director of music at Eureka Springs High School, to organize a music camp, Inspiration Point Fine Arts Colony (IPFAC), which held its first session in the summer of 1950. Hobart and his wife financed extensive repairs to the buildings with loans and donations from Eureka Springs businesses. Some furnishings were obtained from government surplus stores. Practice pianos were donated by area churches and schools.

The Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, and Missouri Federations of Music Clubs provided financial support beginning in the 1950s. In 1959, the enterprise was incorporated as a nonprofit organization, with a ninety-nine-year lease on the property. In the early 1970s, Dr. Vernon Baker purchased the property and donated it to IPFAC. As the school outgrew the original “castle,” the physical plant was more like a children’s camp than an opera workshop, with simple dormitory housing, small faculty apartments, and a barn for storage and rehearsals.

But the quality of the performances belied their surroundings. Hobart hired outstanding teachers and coaches, who often remained on the staff for many summers. Dr. Isaac Van Grove (1892–1979) was artistic director from 1955 to 1977. In addition, he composed six operas on biblical themes suited to the voices of the younger singers. IPFAC’s motto was “The students are the stars”—that is, they would sing all the roles without relying on guest performers.

Early on, performances were held in Eureka Springs’ auditorium, until an open-air pavilion with stage lighting was built in the early 1960s. Traffic noise and the flutter of nocturnal birds and insects were frequently part of a production, and rain occasionally dampened the audience. Carroll Freeman, a scholarship student in 1975, returned for three years afterward as assistant director to Van Grove. Then, from 1987 to 2001, Freeman was artistic director of Opera in the Ozarks, a name chosen to reflect the Fine Arts Colony’s evolving emphasis on a single art form. Freeman and music director Frank Hube capped the enrollment at fifty participants. The directors also began to focus on more mature singers, a group not well served in other “young artist” programs. Freeman and Hube reasoned that these singers would come to Inspiration Point already trained in the essentials of music performance. The faculty could then work with students more capable of meeting the musical and physical demands of singing challenging repertoire in an outdoor Arkansas theater every night for a month.

During the last fifteen years of the twentieth century, Opera in the Ozarks experienced renewed growth and popularity. In 1985, the governing board adopted a long-range plan for a new, modern campus and purchased 200 acres adjoining the property. In 1989, Jim Swiggart, an Inspiration Point alumnus and music teacher in Oklahoma’s public schools, became the general director. Under his leadership, both the musical and administrative aspects of Opera in the Ozarks have experienced dramatic improvements. Swiggart and Freeman, the artistic director, steadily expanded and improved the instructional program. Equally important, Swiggart paid off the company’s debts and began upgrading the housing and work areas. The performance pavilion was partially enclosed, the stage was expanded, and a small pit was built to accommodate the orchestra. After the construction of the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville (Washington County), the company performed once each season there and also in Bella Vista (Benton County).

Around the turn of the century, the organization sold a substantial part of the undeveloped property to finance extensive future improvements. As part of a five- to six-year development plan, the organization commissioned David McKee of Core Architects in Rogers (Benton County) to create a preliminary design for a 750-seat auditorium, enclosed and climate-controlled. This project is expected to cost approximately $10–12 million and would enable a much longer performance schedule than is possible in the present open pavilion. Other goals of the development plan include building restoration, program preservation and support, and an increase of the endowment. In about 2007, the institution employed a publicity agent, Vantage Point Communications, to increase its visibility in the region. In 2010, an alumni association was formed to build support for the institution. A new artistic director, Thomas Cockrell, was hired in 2010, and a studio artists program was inaugurated for undergraduate students. The performance schedule in the twenty-first century has included “A Taste of Opera” outreach events in Bentonville (Benton County), Bella Vista, and Fayetteville. In 2010, the organization was awarded a $25,000 Arkansas Heritage Resource Grant to support renovations of the auxiliary buildings at the site.

In the 2011 season, from late June to late July, the company included students from twenty states. It gave twenty-three performances of three operas, and at the beginning of the performance season, the company hosted “Family Day at the Opera,” an educational and recreational effort to engage young people’s interest in opera. In addition, the company toured the region in eleven performances of a one-hour version of The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan. Despite the oppressive heat in the open-air pavilion, about 6,500 people from more than twenty-five states attended these performances.

For additional information:
Horton, Ray F. Inspiration Point…and Its Personalities. St. Louis: The Bethany Press, 1961.

“Inspiration Point Fine Arts Colony: History.” A one-page unsigned account printed in the annual programs of Opera in the Ozarks, beginning circa 2000.

Martin, Becca Bacon. “Opera in the Ozarks.” Morning News of Northwest Arkansas, June 24, 2005, p. 1E.

Opera in the Ozarks at Inspiration Point. http://opera.org/ (accessed March 28, 2018).

Opera in the Ozarks/Inspiration Point Fine Arts Colony Records. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas. Finding aid online at https://libraries.uark.edu/specialcollections/findingaids/ead/transform.asp?xml=mc1949 (accessed March 28, 2018).

Polikoff, Rich. “Officials Seek New Venue to Extend Opera Season.” Northwest Arkansas Newspapers, September 5, 2011, p. 9.

Ethel C. Simpson
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

Last Updated: 03/28/2018