Attendees at an Ozarks Lyric Opera performance can expect an intimate gathering, as they will be seated on the same stage as the performances. (Photo by Mary Ellen Chiles)

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Germans have a reputation for being buttoned-up, but their musical tradition is positively rambunctious.

“Their outward appearance is very reserved, but you don’t know what’s going on inside someone until you hear their art,” Michael Spyres said.

The internationally renowned baritenor and artistic director of Ozarks Lyric Opera will highlight German songs, food, and, of course, beer, at OLO’s annual fundraiser this weekend. 

In 2022, the nonprofit presented an evening of French songs and food for “A Foreign Affair.” This year, Spyres wanted to focus on German culture.

“We have this idea of Germans being these very precise people that don’t want to be passionate and open-hearted but, no, Germans are very, very different than you think,” he said. 

Keeping opera going after 400 years

This year’s event is so popular, the organizers added another. OLO Business and Operations Manager Sean Spyres said the first gathering — which will be Friday, Nov. 17 — sold out in 48 hours. His brother, Michael, suggested a second show. The matinee will begin at 2:30 pm on Sunday, Nov. 19 at Gillioz Theatre. A few tickets still remain.

Ozarks Lyric Opera depends on fundraising because, quite frankly, it’s rare to make money from an opera. OLO productions can cost upwards of $50,000.

“The hardest thing about opera is knowing that you’ll never produce one that actually pays for itself,” Michael Spyres said. 

“Ticket sales only make up $15-18,000, tops,” Sean Spyres said. “That’s not unique to us; it’s just impossible to make money producing opera because of all of the professional costs.”

The cost of paying musicians for the live orchestra alone eats up nearly all of the ticket earnings.

“It’s this living, breathing, amazing art form. We’re doing as much as we can, but it does take money,” Michael Spyres said. “But, it’s important to tell these archetypical, gigantic stories that can inspire and change modern thinking.”

There’s more to see beyond the classics. Recently visitors to the New York Metropolitan Opera could take in a show based on the Michael Cunningham book, “The Hours.” This month, the Met has a production of “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X.” 

There’s even an opera based on “Moby Dick.”

“Opera has been around for over 400 years,” Michael Spyres said “It’s seen plagues and wars, but it still decides to persist, just like us people.”

From a kid in Mansfield to ‘Male Singer of the Year

The Spyres family hails from Mansfield, Missouri, but now Michael performs all over the world. In 2024, he will help commemorate the 200th anniversary of Beethoven’s Ninth in Vienna under the legendary Italian conductor Riccardo Muti. Spyres will play Licinius in “La Vestale” in Paris and Don José in “Carmen” in Barcelona. 

Michael Spyres was recently named Male Singer of the Year by the International Opera Awards Foundation. (Photo by Andie Bottrell)

He’ll also perform in three Richard Wagner operas: as the title character in “Lohengrin” in Strasbourg, France; Siegmund in “Die Walküre” in Bayreuth, Germany; and Erik in “The Flying Dutchman” in Hamburg, Germany. He spends 8-9 months traveling and performing each year.

As it is written, “Wherever you wander; where you roam; be happy, and healthy, and glad to come home.” 

Spyres frequently returns to his base in Rogersville, where he lives with his wife, Tara Stafford-Spyres, and their two young boys. 

Michael Spyres is enthusiastic about the Ozarks Lyric Opera — formerly known as Springfield Regional Opera — that helped him create his dream life. He performs with OLO a few times a year, and he never takes payment.

“It’s the opera company that started me, and that’s why I feel such a duty to it,” he said. “I wouldn’t be an opera singer had it not been for them.” 

Spyres grew up singing with his family, the self-described “Hillbilly von Trapps.”

“I grew up singing for our food. That’s what our family did. We didn’t get paid,” he said. 

Singing for your supper may work out yet: Spyres was just named “Male Singer of the Year by the International Opera Awards Foundation. 

“I love what I’m doing as a profession, and I make enough money with that. If people do give money to the opera, I want them to know that it’s actually going towards it, and not to line my greedy pockets,” he said with a laugh (but not a maniacal laugh).

What’s on “tap?” 

Attendees at “A Foreign Affair” can expect some familiar melodies. Spyres said film scores have roots in German operettas, which are lighthearted, fun, and a precursor to modern musicals. He will present some works from Richard Wagner, who Spyres calls a “catalyst” for composers of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Michael Spyres (right) and Tara Stafford-Spyres (left), husband and wife, sing together at least once a year. Last year they performed at a festival in France. (Photo by Andie Bottrell)

“I’m just excited to present a lot of this music because it’s so romantic and beautiful,” Spyres said, “A lot of people have heard some of this music but they don’t realize that it’s all from Germany.”

Spyres and Stafford-Spyres – a Coloratura Soprano – will perform a few Schumann duets, including selections they sang at a French festival last December.

“It’s kind of funny; we’ll just look at each other,” Stafford-Spyres said. “And we’ll be like, ‘Ah, this is special.’ And then everybody gets to see our personal business, but it’s hard not to be romantic.”

“We’re singing love songs and it’s awesome because she and I look at each other like, ‘Wow, this is kind of dreamlike and awesome because we actually mean these words,’” Spyres said.

The chef and the composer 

Speaking of sweet things, attendees will be treated to four traditional German courses – including hand-stretched strudel – made by award-winning pastry chef Katie Kring. Each course will be paired with German beer or wine. 

Kring also co-wrote an opera, “Sweet Louisa,” which premiered with OLO in 2022.

Katie Kring co-wrote Sweet Louisa, a Gothic opera presented by OLO in 2022. (Submitted Photo)

“Sometimes I’m the composer, and sometimes I’m the cook, and sometimes I’m just sitting in the audience appreciating it,” Kring said.

Kring co-owns Pickwick & Cherry, where she teaches baking and cooking classes.

“The bakery pops into existence around major holidays,” she said. 

You can still order pies, but don’t wait too long. 

“Mike and I were in a production of “The Sound of Music” together in 1990 when we were both small and adorable,” Kring said. “And now we’re grownups and adorable and still doing interesting things.”

Spyres will take breaks from singing to connect with everyone at “A Foreign Affair.” An amiable fellow, he enjoys chatting with people, especially those who also enjoy opera.

“I love just talking to people and if they want to support us, it’s fantastic. We would love your support,” he said. 

Giving back

“For me, the most important thing that I care about right now is helping all of our Young Artists,” Stafford-Spyres said. 

Young Artists are usually 18-25. They audition for the Spyres and work with them to prepare for careers in the opera. The couple also enjoys performing with members of the community, of all ages, who want to sing in the opera chorus.

“Michael and I have tons of experience, and we can give the kids guidance,” Stafford-Spyres said. “We introduce them to other people and help them audition if they’re super serious about singing opera.”

The couple will host a master class for the Young Artists this weekend. They, along with Sean, were once Young Artists with the local opera, too. And, Stafford-Spyres’ sister, Lindsey Wheatley, serves as Director of Marketing and Development at OLO, handling many details as de facto executive director, according to Stafford-Spyres. The organization now makes the Gillioz its home base, but the Spyres knew it quite well even before it was restored to its current glory in 2006.

“We sang at First Night in 1998, and the Gillioz had a hole in the ceiling,” Stafford-Spyres said. “It was snowing down on us on the stage and we could see our breath, and oh my goodness. We’ve been through a lot with this company.”

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