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, which overlooks the White River five miles west of Eureka Springs (Carroll County) on U.S. Highway 62. The company has always performed in repertory style, with each student learning several roles over the season. Four weeks of rehearsals are followed by four weeks of performances of three operas with full orchestra, full costumes, and full staging, with all operas performed in their original language. In addition, a children’s opera is performed at venues throughout northwestern Arkansas and southwestern Missouri.
Charles Mowers, a German-born engineer and inventor, came from Texas to the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas 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, a renowned preacher of the Disciples of Christ, who planned to use it as a retreat from his duties as minister. He named the site “Inspiration Point.” After his death in 1938, his widow gave the property to Phillips University in Enid, Oklahoma, to use as a conference and retreat center. Ten years later, however, this project was abandoned. Dr. Henry Hobart, 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). IPFAC held its first opera camp in the summer of 1950. Hobart and his wife, Ellen, financed extensive repairs to the buildings with loans and donations from Eureka Springs businesses.
The Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, and Missouri Federations of Music Clubs provided financial support to IPFAC beginning in the 1950s. In 1959, the enterprise was incorporated as a nonprofit organization, with a ninety-nine-year lease on the property. As the organization grew, it began offering instruction to more advanced students, with the focus exclusively upon opera. The facility featured dormitories for men and women, faculty cabins, and a cafeteria and office building, as well as practice cabins and the historic red barn, which eventually became a storage facility for costumes and sets. Hobart hired outstanding teachers and coaches, who often remained on the staff for many summers. Hobart continued as administrator until his death in 1966. Dr. Isaac Van Grove was artistic director from 1955 through 1978 (one years before his death). In addition, he composed six operas on biblical themes suited to the voices of the younger singers.
Early on, rehearsals were held in the “Tabernacle” at the Point, while performances were staged in the Eureka Springs auditorium. In the early 1960s, the Tabernacle was converted into an open-air pavilion with stage lighting, making evening performances possible. Carroll Freeman, who was an IPFAC scholarship student in 1975, returned for the following three years as assistant director to Van Grove and, from 1987 to 2001, was artistic director. During this period, the name “Opera in the Ozarks” became synonymous with IPFAC and was deliberately chosen to reflect the Fine Arts Colony’s evolving emphasis on a single art form. Capping enrollment at fifty participants, the artistic and music directors focused on more mature singers, a group not well-served in other “young artist” programs.
The Fine Arts Colony also offered camps and workshops in string, piano, jazz, dance, and art for youth and adults. Until 1986, orchestra training was a significant component of IPFAC’s program, enabling students to play on their respective instruments in symphonic concerts and recitals as well as accompany opera performances. 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, the musical and administrative aspects of Opera in the Ozarks experienced dramatic improvements. Swiggart and Freeman, the artistic director, steadily expanded and improved the instructional program.
In the early 1990s, the Inspiration Point Fine Arts Colony officially changed its name to Opera in the Ozarks at Inspiration Point. The performance pavilion was partially enclosed, and the stage was expanded. New lattice siding gave the feeling of being inside a theater, even though it was still an open-air structure. In addition, a small pit was built to accommodate the orchestra, thereby freeing up space for additional audience seating. The company also arranged for performances at the newly constructed Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville (Washington County) and at venues in Bella Vista (Benton County).
By 2000, the organization had sold a substantial part of the undeveloped property to finance further improvements. The organization commissioned David McKee of Core Architects in Rogers (Benton County) to design a 750-seat auditorium, which was enclosed and climate-controlled. In October 2010, Dr. Thomas Cockrell, orchestra director at the University of Arizona School of Music in Tucson, was hired as artistic director. Jim Swiggart retired in 2013, and Dr. Nancy Preis—a former engineering company CEO who played a key role in establishing the St. Petersburg, Florida, Opera Company—was hired as general director in 2015. Later, an operations manager was hired; seasonal staff, faculty, orchestra, and production staff had paid positions. The Duane and Carole Langley Rehearsal Center debuted in 2017, providing space for simultaneous rehearsal staging of the season’s productions.
In the early years of his tenure, Cockrell inaugurated a studio artists program for undergraduates, now called “Emerging Artists.” “Taste of Opera” dinners have been held at the historic Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs as well as at restaurants in Fayetteville. In 2018, Opera in the Ozarks began producing evening “cabaret” events in Fayetteville and Eureka Springs to showcase musicians’ talents in non-opera pieces; chamber music concerts have also been presented. Full-production performances of the season’s opera repertoire have been offered at the Arend Arts Center in Bentonville (Benton County) and at the Arts Center of the Ozarks in Springdale (Washington and Benton counties). An estimated 3,500 people attended the twenty-two opera performances in 2019. Children’s opera productions, such as Monkey See, Monkey Do and Cinderella, have gone on the road to public libraries and other venues in communities such as Bella Vista, Berryville (Carroll County), Eureka Springs, Fayetteville, and Green Forest (Carroll County) in northwestern Arkansas and Cassville in southwestern Missouri.
Opera in the Ozarks at Inspiration Point is a 501(c)(3) organization. The South Central Region (comprising Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas) of the National Federation of Music Clubs supports the Opera in the Ozarks program and holds its annual meeting at “Federation Days” in July during the last week of the Opera in the Ozarks summer season. The Opera in the Ozarks Governing Board of Directors includes two representatives and a trustee from each of the five supporting state federations and up to sixteen at-large members.
On May 5, 2023, the Walton Family Foundation announced that it would provide $34 million in grant funding for the Opera in the Ozarks at Inspiration Point for the design and construction of a new theater building.
For additional information:
Hobart, David. “A History of Inspiration Point Fine Arts Colony, 1950–1990.” Unpublished booklet.
Horton, Ray F. Inspiration Point…and Its Personalities. St. Louis: The Bethany Press, 1961.
“Inspiration Point Fine Arts Colony: History.” An unsigned account is printed in the annual programs of Opera in the Ozarks, beginning circa 2000.
Hightower, Lara Jo. “Nancy Preis: Opera Is Her First Love.” Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 30, 2019, p. 1D.
Martin, Becca Bacon. “Opera in the Ozarks.” Morning News of Northwest Arkansas, June 24, 2005, p. 1E.
Opera in the Ozarks at Inspiration Point. https://opera.org/ (accessed January 20, 2022).
Opera in the Ozarks / Inspiration Point Fine Arts Colony Records. MC 1949. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas. Finding aid online at https://libraries.uark.edu/specialcollections/findingaids/ead/transform.php?xml=mc1949 (accessed January 20, 2022).
Polikoff, Rich. “Officials Seek New Venue to Extend Opera Season.” Northwest Arkansas Newspapers, September 5, 2011, p. 9.
Janet H. Parsch
University of Arkansas Libraries
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In 1974, I was a scholarship member of the summer program with Dr. Van Grove. Carrol Freeman was in attendance as well. The experience I gained at Inspiration Point helped me throughout my career. In the evenings, Dr. Van Grove would regale us with tales of the Chicago Grand Opera with Mary Garden. His description of the Mephisto scene in Faust was amazing: as Mephistophilis sang, the stage lights dimmed and the flowers lit up and brightened and dimmed as he gestured. GAH! I went on to join the Broadway Evita cast and experienced such stagecraft.