Three actors perform a scene from an opera on a stage
Ozarks Lyric Opera presents "Don Giovanni" March 17 and 18 at the Gillioz Theatre. It's Springfield's first production of the classic opera in 25 years. (Photo: Ozarks Lyric Opera)

This story is part of the Arts and Culture Reporting Corps, sponsored by the Springfield Regional Arts Council.

On Tuesday evening, the Gillioz Theatre was bustling with the hum of instruments tuning up and actors and crew making final adjustments, preparing to begin. Ozarks Lyric Opera is performing Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at the historic Gillioz Theatre this weekend, March 17 and 18, at 7:30 p.m. With opening night just days away, I was lucky to be invited to observe the first dress rehearsal.

To be honest, I felt a little intimidated before writing this story. No doubt the same way some people might feel when considering a night at the opera for themselves. Am I smart enough to understand what’s going on? I am happy to report: you don’t have to be an expert to enjoy this performance. And there’s plenty to enjoy. 

Ozarks Lyric Opera has worked to make sure the evening is accessible and enjoyable to all. All dialogue is spoken in English, so it’s easy to follow along, and English translations are projected above the stage during the songs, which are sung in Italian.

Dress code shouldn’t be a concern for first-time operagoers. Lindsey Wheatley, director of marketing and development for OLO, assured me, “We have people who come in ball gowns, and others in blue jeans. Whatever you want to wear is fine.” 

Universal themes ring true 

Forget what you might imagine about a typical opera’s staging and costumes. With Jay Jackson’s stage direction and Springfield Symphony’s ​Kyle Wiley Pickett in the orchestra pit, this cast of local and national talent bring the opera to life in 1970s America. The corsets and wigs you might expect from a performance of Mozart are traded for bell bottoms, silk scarves and…still wigs. That part is timeless. 

Here’s how Jay Jackson describes this choice.

“As I was beginning my initial stages of work on Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, I thought of the universal theme of the Casanova story,” he said. “Even though this opera was composed in 1787, it would ring true if I set it in the biblical age, the medieval period or the modern era of the 1970s women’s liberation movement headed by Gloria Steinem.” 

The costumes and hairstyles bring the classic story into modern-ish times — platform shoes, tie-dye, and aviator sunglasses — plus not-so-subtle nods to feminism and protests, including a very funny moment in Act One that I won’t spoil here. (Wait for the protest sign.)

“This opera has a man, Don Juan, who believes it’s his right to do anything his wayward heart desires,” Jackson said. “The three women at the apex, each represent a different side of the age-old control of men over women. One is the power of wealth over poverty, the other is the betrayal of true love and the final is the classic battle of evil challenging good. Ultimately Don Giovanni is a cautionary tale that those who gamble with their own soul reap what they sow in the end.” 

Operas like “Don Giovanni” endure not just because they are artistic artifacts of their own time period; the emotions and universal truths about human nature transcend time and language barriers. 

Sean Spyres, business and operations director of OLO, sat next to me for part of the rehearsal and explained the action during “Madamina, il catalogo è questo,” an aria that’s sung by Leporello, a character I’d describe as Don Giovanni’s wingman. Throughout the song, Leporello (Jonathan Stinson) holds a well-worn little black book as he recounts the literal catalog of Don Giovanni’s numerous romantic conquests — by country of origin, hair color, age, shape and size. Cautionary tale, indeed.  

Actors perform a scene from an opera on a stage
Ozarks Lyric Opera presents “Don Giovanni” March 17 and 18 at the Gillioz Theatre. It’s Springfield’s first production of the classic opera in 25 years. (Photo: Ozarks Lyric Opera)

Real, human characters 

“Opera is one of the most grandiose things you can imagine,” said Michael Spyres, artistic director of Ozarks Lyric Opera, who’s in town for the production.

As the story unfolds in English and Italian, you can feel the extremes of emotion, comedy, drama and romance — it’s all here. Timeless music alongside jokes that could fit in any Judd Apatow movie script.  

“Mozart liked to stick it to the man,” Michael Spyres said. “That’s why people still like it today. There’s class struggle and human emotion — heavy themes under the beauty. And real, human, vulnerable characters portrayed as real people.”

He performed in “Don Giovanni” at the Salzburg Festival in 2021. (Fun fact: Salzburg, Austria, is the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.)

That human emotion is what makes opera still relevant to people in the Ozarks (like you!) in 2023. When high art, humor and contemporary culture meet in this production, it’s like art is being created before your very eyes. And it will be, in fact: artist and Springfield native Brad Noble will be live painting during both performances. As an added you-had-to-be-there element, audience members will be able to watch as he creates original paintings, just offstage during the show.

An artist stands next to a blank canvas on an easel
Springfield native and artist Brad Noble will be live painting during Ozarks Lyric Opera’s production of “Don Giovanni” March 17 and 18 at the Gillioz Theatre. His art is also featured during the opera. (Photo: Ozarks Lyric Opera)

Set designer John Johnson was inspired by taking the classic story and placing it in the atmosphere of a 1970s art gallery. This is his third time designing with OLO, after “Pagliacci” and “Sweet Louisa” last year.

This stage design features prints of six Noble paintings, as well as mirrors — one flown in on wires and two on wheels. The mirrors add an extra dimension to the stage and the performance, allowing the audience to get a more complete view of the characters as they move around the stage.

A full-circle moment 

This opera was last performed in Springfield in 1996. That Springfield Regional Opera performance happened to be the first opera for two brothers from Mansfield, Missouri: Michael and Sean Spyres. At the time, Sean was a freshman at Drury University and Michael was a senior at Mansfield High School. 

This performance is also meaningful for two members of the chorus. Dr. Craig Carson and his daughter, Madison, are performing in their third opera together at the Gillioz. Dr. Carson, who serves as assistant superintendent at Ozark Schools, wasn’t sure he could fit the show into his schedule, but when Madison was interested as well, he was persuaded.  

The 1996 production was also his first opera, and Dr. Carson says the ’70s time frame gives this show a whole new appeal.

“At the first rehearsal, it all came rushing back,” he said.

It’s a full-circle moment, remembering old friends while making new memories with his daughter.

“This is a dream come true for me,” Madison said. 

She’s always been a singer, from elementary school through college, and she remembers hearing her dad talk about the ’96 production growing up. Now here they are, on stage together. 

There’s something inexplicable in the magic of being in the room where it happens (Look, “Hamilton” was just here. I can’t help myself), with enthusiastic professionals sharing facts and background as the show unfolded. But anyone can have an incredible time at the opera this weekend. Challenge your expectations of what a night at the opera might look like, and you will leave entertained and delighted.

Three actors perform a scene from an opera on a stage
Ozarks Lyric Opera presents “Don Giovanni” March 17 and 18 at the Gillioz Theatre. It’s Springfield’s first production of the classic opera in 25 years. (Photo: Ozarks Lyric Opera)

Want to go?

What: Ozark Lyric Opera presents Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”

When: March 17 and 18, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Gillioz Theatre

Tickets: $27.50, $37.50, $47.50

For more information: Visit the Gillioz Theatre website, or call 417-863-9491.

Sarah Jenkins

Sarah Jenkins is a freelance writer in Springfield who’s eager to share stories about our unique and far-reaching arts scene and the people who make it all happen. More by Sarah Jenkins