Michael Spyres performs a song from Pagliacci in March 2022. (Photo by Dean Curtis)

Ozarks Lyric Opera, like any arts organization, depends on funding from the public to survive. Its artistic director, Michael Spyres, decided to offer amuse-bouche — “an amusement of the mouth.”

Spyres and OLO will present “A Foreign Affair” at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, October 25, at the Gillioz Theatre in Springfield. The fundraiser will include French food, wine, and music.

Spyres – a world-renowned opera singer who was raised in Mansfield, Missouri — just finished performing the title role of Mozart’s Idomeneo at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. After a brief visit home, he will travel to France to perform with the Paris Opera through the end of the year. 

Spyres typically spends 8-9 months touring the world while maintaining a home base in Rogersville with his wife, Tara Stafford-Spyres, and their two young sons. 

“Most of the opera companies in Europe will have 70-90 percent government funding, then the rest will come from private donors,” he said.

Not so here in the U.S. 

“For operas that exist in the United States, I’d say about 90 percent is private funds, private donations, and then only about 10 percent grants. There are very few funds that are possible,” Spyres said.

Michael Spyres performs a song from Pagliacci and another song at Tie & Timber Brewing Co. to promote a past performance of Pagliacci.

So, he decided to bring France to the Ozarks. Who better to do so than a hillbilly French knight?

Last year, Spyres was inducted into the Knighthood of Arts and Letters, the highest honor of any artist given by the Republic of France.

Spyres doesn’t expect to be treated as a conquering hero, however. 

“As far as I know, I’m the only person in history from the Ozarks that’s ever become a knight, officially, from France. So, I am the first hillbilly knight,” he said.

He insists it’s not just a line for laughs.

“Most of my summers I didn’t have shoes on. I was a hillbilly, and if you listened to me when I was little, I had a pretty thick accent,” he said, slowly drawing out his vowels.

Spyres says the Ozarks and France are more linked than we realize

Yet, the Ozarks and France do share a similar look, graced with sunflowers and gently sloping farmland.

A growth of Fescue 31 near a man-made pond on the private Rockspan Farm in the Ozarks. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

“The Ozarks is actually a French name that means the rolling arches and rolling hills. We have such a kinship and — this is one of the things that I think everybody needs to know and be proud of — French wine is actually an amalgam of wine from Missouri and from southern France,” he said.

He explains:

“Phylloxera, back in the mid-1800s, basically devastated all of the French wines in the entire Bordeaux and Southern French regions. And this tiny little insect was killing all of their crops. They needed something more hardy,” he said.

Enter Missouri soil:

“Missouri, and our hard earth, and our wines, were really, really famous in the 1800s. We had one of the biggest wineries in the world just outside of Hermann, Missouri. A bunch of different vineyards from the northern part of the Ozarks transported tons and tons of earth and plants from Missouri and grafted them onto vineyards in France,” he said.

Dieu merci.

“Any French wine connoisseur will tip their hat — or chapeau — to Missourians, because their wine culture would have been drastically different,” he said.

The French may have a reputation for an aloofness that contrasts with the convivial nature of Bible-breathing Ozarkians, but both regions offer much goodness.

Frere de terre: Yeah, that’s why I always call French people ‘brothers of the earth,’ and that’s why I like this theme. The history of France and the U.S. is so connected. I’d like for people here to understand that we have a lot to thank the French for, even though they can be hoity-toity and funny,” he said.

Transforming the Gillioz into a French bistro

This view from the balcony level of the Gillioz Theatre includes a stained glass window and a stunning chandelier. (Photo by Sony Hocklander)

Thus, turning the Gillioz into a French bistro for a night made sense for Spyres, who calls leisurely meals in such restaurants in France “one of my favorite things.” He is replicating the experience with the help of local baker/composer Katie Kring, who helped create a menu of four separate appetizers paired with French wines. 

Non-alcoholic wine will also be available.

“It’s nice for people to understand that, oh, ‘This is the type of food that you’re supposed to eat with white wine. This is with red,’” he said.

Spyres will perform a bit of opera, French chansons (“piano-accompanied classical music”), and songs from Cole Porter, who studied extensively in Paris. Special guest coloratura soprano Tara Stafford-Spyres will accompany her husband Michael on romantic duets.  

“I want to create an immersive atmosphere, like you would in a bistro in France. That’s the whole idea. This experience that takes people away from being in Springfield for a little bit,” Spyres said.

Spyres’ vision for Springfield’s future

He will fly to Paris the day after the event to perform until the end of the year.

But first, home.

“This is a special event that I wanted to do for local people who want to support the opera. I always donate all my time and services to the opera for free, because I believe in the culture and lifting it a little bit higher. So, the next generation can be even better,” he said.

Spyres dreams of creating a world that supports working artists — or, a town, to start with.

“Opera is a whole industry over there in Europe,” he said. “My hope is that, eventually, we’ll be able to make it an industry here because if you’re ever able to see an opera, there are 300-400 people working simultaneously to present the show: orchestra members, background team, people doing technical work. There are hundreds of people at once creating a piece of art. And it’s a real industry.”

Michael’s wife, Tara, takes a selfie with her family and Michael before Michael Spyres performed a song from Pagliacci at Tie & Timber Brewing Co. to promote a past performance of “Pagliacci.” (Photo by Dean Curtis)

And, that economic potential encompasses all sorts of creative works.

“When someone goes to an art exhibition or a show or anything like that, they’re getting drinks, they’re doing parking, they’re eating: it’s creating the economy within a downtown. But the arts never realize that they’re the ones that are creating that economy. We artists are really bad at self-advocacy,” he said.

But not always.

Tuesday’s event at the Gillioz is limited to 80 people. A few tickets still remain. 

Mary Ellen Chiles

Mary Ellen Chiles is a freelance photographer and writer based in the Ozarks. She graduated from Missouri State University with a bachelor’s in creative writing and a master’s in English, Creative Nonfiction Writing. More by Mary Ellen Chiles