Michael Spyres performs a song from Pagliacci and another song at Tie & Timber Brewing Co. to promote the upcoming performance of "Pagliacci." (Photo by Dean Curtis)

It’s not uncommon for international opera star and Ozarks native Michael Spyres to visit multiple countries in the span of a week. He’s more likely to be found performing in the finest opera houses of France, Germany or Spain than out and about around Springfield.

That’s part of what makes his upcoming starring role in Ozarks Lyric Opera’s “Pagliacci” so special. Originally scheduled for 2020, the production’s Mar. 25 debut marks Spyres’ first big performance in his home state since becoming the renowned performer he is.

Looking at Spyres’ family makes his musical influences clear. His parents were music educators for almost 50 years, his mother having co-created the popular “Laura’s Memories” musical in the town of Mansfield, Mo. His sister is a Broadway star, his brother operations manager for Springfield’s Ozarks Lyric Opera.

“My family performing together are my earliest memories,” Spyres says. “My siblings and I literally grew up on stage.”

Spyres knew the stage was where he wanted to stay, at first aspiring for a career in either musical theater or comedy. A short stint at college led him to discover that opera was his true calling, where he could pursue his dreams of world travel—and travel, he did.

Spyres’ opera career is born

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

His first big break on the opera scene was performing the titular role in Otello at the Rossini in Wildbad opera festival in Germany. “Once I sang this extremely difficult role of Otello, most of the doors of the major opera companies of the world opened up to me,” Spyres says. “This opera alone paved the careers of nearly every famous singer in the 1800s.”

Since that performance, Spyres has sung on the world’s most prestigious stages in 23 countries across five continents. A typical year for him is almost ten months on the road, around 25 cities in nine countries, learning four to six new operas per year while performing over a dozen different concerts and recitals. He has 10 DVDs and 27 albums to his name, was named Artist of the Year in multiple countries by top classical music publications and was even inducted into the Knighthood of the Arts and Letters, the highest honor for any artist given by the Republic of France.

“It makes me laugh in disbelief every time when I think about the fact that I am the first and more than likely only hillbilly knight from the Ozarks.”

Michael Spyres

Both a global performer and Ozarks opera impresario

Michael Spyres performs a song from Pagliacci and another song at Tie & Timber Brewing Co. to promote the upcoming performance of “Pagliacci.” (Photo by Dean Curtis)

Spyres also has the distinct honor of being the only opera star in the world who is not just a performer, but also an impresario, one who organizes and finances operas. He serves as the artistic director of Ozarks Lyric Opera, choosing the titles to be performed and guiding the company’s overall artistic vision. He has translated operas from German and Italian to English, coordinated fundraising, created programs and written plays and events, to say nothing of taking part in the occasional performance when his schedule allows.

Performing around the world for most of the year while still tending to the needs of Ozarks Lyric Opera is a difficult balancing act, but one that he has managed to pull off. “Thanks to the internet, I am able to have meetings wherever I am,” he says, “whether in a bar in Paris or a McDonalds in Tokyo.”

It’s a role he decided to take on around eight years ago, when Ozarks Lyric Opera was on the verge of closure. Spyres, adamant to give back to the company that primed him for his opera career, used his insight and contacts from the world’s great opera houses and proposed a performance of “Pagliacci”, a springboard to help OLO get back on its feet and begin performing full operatic productions again. He knew from the outset the performers he had in mind. “All five of us protagonists in the opera truly are a troupe, just like [the characters] in the opera. We have all performed together over numerous projects with the opera in the last 15 years, and this was the entire core of the idea. The significance of being able to present this opera with my dear friends and colleagues is almost overwhelming, and getting to have our old family friend and mentor Jay Jackson to direct is a dream come true.”

So, how does preparing an opera for Springfield, Mo. compare with preparing one for, say, France or London?

“Here in Springfield, we are very much a community,” Spyres said, “and it feels much more organic, while also being a bit chaotic because we just don’t have the staff or resources that most houses have to put on this incredibly difficult art form. The upside is that we are impacting our community much more, and it is incredibly meaningful and familial, which to me is the ultimate goal of our art form.”

Ozarks performance is years in the making

Michael Spyres, right, gets a hug from his father, Eric, while visiting with Carly Wingfield, left, and Tobias Mueller. Michael Spyres performed a song from Pagliacci and another song at Tie & Timber Brewing Co. to promote the upcoming performance of “Pagliacci.” (Photo by Dean Curtis)

Of course, putting together an opera of this magnitude would take a significant amount of time — years, in fact. A tremendous opportunity to star alongside one of the famous Three Tenors, Placido Domingo, dominated Spyres’ work calendar, pushing “Pagliacci” performance plans out to early 2020.

Then came the pandemic.

“The last few years have been some of the most mentally difficult years for everyone, and especially so for those of us who perform for a living,” Spyres said. “When the world shut down, it was devastating for the arts, and for nearly eight months straight it was impossible to perform for a live audience. I personally had to find other avenues to pay the bills. I was technically contracted throughout the pandemic, so I legally could not take other full-time jobs in the off chance that I would be called to Europe to sing. One by one the contracts fell through, and so I went back to the line of work that I did before I became an opera singer: I worked for a landscaping company and did manual labor and construction work.”

Finally, almost eight years and one global pandemic later, Spyres and crew are ready to present “Pagliacci” to the Ozarks later this week.

With his constant stream of work overseas, Spyres bringing his performing talents back to the Ozarks where he was born and raised is like a homecoming of sorts.

“This production is truly a milestone for me,” he says, “because it feels like my life is coming full circle as I perform alongside my longtime friends and family here with the opera company that primed me for the life I have today. I wanted to come back to my roots and show our local audiences that we can present a world-class operatic experience right here in the Ozarks and we should be proud of our artistic heritage. The crossroads for the arts that Missouri was made for a very rich history of artists, and the story of ‘Pagliacci’ is essentially the story of America’s art form of vaudeville. I wanted to put the opera, which is written in Italian, into an accessible and meaningful language that audiences here could enjoy and understand, and this paralleled perfectly with our tradition of vaudeville in the US.”

What is ‘Pagliacci’ about?

(Photo by Andie Bottrell)

The story of “Pagliacci”, traditionally set in the region of Calabria in southern Italy, is loosely based on a real-life event where a performer murdered his wife in a jealous rage after a show. A ragtag group of traveling performers trying to keep their art form of commedia dell’arte (also known as “Italian comedy”) alive have just come to town when the leading protagonist of the group, Canio — portrayed by Spyres — learns from a troupe member that his wife is being unfaithful. Coincidentally, that same colleague is after Canio’s wife as well.

“I chose to set our production in the more familiar genre of the television variety talk show such as Ed Sullivan or Johnny Carson,” Spyres said. “The irony of our production is that the television and film world essentially killed the livelihood and artform of the vaudeville, and within the traditional setting, the traveling performers are trying to keep the art form of commedia dell’arte relevant.”

The show features perhaps the most famous aria in opera history, “Ridi! Pagliaccio,” which has become ingrained into pop culture history since its debut. While the average person might not recognize the piece by the title, most would find the melody to be unmistakable.

“‘Pagliacci’ is the quintessential opera, and one of the most iconic and recognizable,” says Spyres. “I would say if someone has ever been ‘opera curious,’ then you should definitely see our production. It is everything that makes opera great. Larger than life stories with performers who are singing and acting live is truly one of the greatest thrills anyone can experience. It is quite literally like seeing a film come to life. If you have never experienced an opera, then this is definitely the show to begin with.”

Want to attend?

Showtimes for “Ozarks Lyric Opera Presents: Pagliacci” are Friday, Mar. 25 and Saturday, Mar. 26 at the Gillioz Theater. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. with performances beginning at 7:30 p.m.

Buy tickets on the Ozarks Lyric Opera website.

Paul Cecchini

Paul Cecchini is a freelance writer, aspiring author and award-winning former editor of the Mansfield Mirror newspaper (the Missouri one, not the Texas one). His writing mantra is that everyone has a story, and he’s always on the lookout for the next one to tell. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook @peachykeeny or view a sampling of his published work at muckrack.com/peachykeeny. More by Paul Cecchini