Opera in Ozarks Director Jim Swiggart retiring
Jim Swiggart, general director for Opera in the Ozarks, is retiring after more than 25 years of directing and teaching others how to make music.
Swiggart was born in Chandler, Okla., and he attended and graduated from Oklahoma City University with majors in voice, instrumental and church music. He has taught music in Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.
His connections to Opera in the Ozarks go way, way back.
In 1955, he was a junior in high school and attended a music camp at the Inspiration Point Fine Arts Colony. The colony would later change its name to Opera in the Ozarks under Swiggart's tenure as director.
The colony was previously owned by a German minister, who sold it to Professor Henry Hobart of Phillips University in Enid, Okla. The minister was using it as a church camp, but the grounds were too worn down to continue the camp, so Hobart started a music education program for some of the best and brightest music students from Oklahoma and surrounding areas.
"The first thing he did was call his friends who were they very best professionals, like Constance Eberhart and Isaac Van Grove," Swiggart explained. "Those people brought their skills, and next thing you know there were kids here who have never been around a professional before and all the sudden there is a professional here sitting across the table from them helping them develop their music talents."
The first production under Hobart was "Hansel and Gretel" in 1950, and one year later the production was televised and the colony started gaining a reputation.
"It caught on like a prairie fire and everyone wanted to be a part of it," Swiggart said. "It started in 1950 with 12 students and some staff and by 1955 there were 115 students with an opera company, orchestra and ballet company."
As the colony grew, it started attracting a more mature and talented student body. Swiggart attended as a student from 1955 until his second year of college in 1958. At that time it was a six-week camp that produced 10 operas a year, with the support of the Eureka Springs community and the National Federated Music Clubs.
In 1980, after a few years of teaching music at public schools, Swiggart was approached by his old high school vocal instructor to conduct a band camp at the colony and help them become profitable. With the help of a "brillant college professor," Swiggart led his campers to produce 20 music selections in one week, which is a lot compared to band camps at other colleges that only did three in as much time.
"We challenged them, and when you are challenged you grow," Swiggart said. "Those kids grew very quickly, and I did that for several years until they needed someone to come and run the opera in 1989."
With 30 students, a grand piano and the help of Carol Freeman, an instructor who attended the colony and the same university as Swiggart, the colony generated profits for the first time in several years and paid its bills with the help of Swiggart's leadership and direction. The next year they built an orchestra and started establishing an even bigger, stronger reputation.
The colony changed the name to Opera in the Ozarks at Inspiration Point in the early '90s to help outside music programs and officials from other venues better identify with the purpose and location of the program. They decided to keep Inspiration point in the name so that the colony's alumni could recognize their former program as well.
"This program fulfills a need that nowhere else can," Swiggart said. "I was challenging kids because I wanted them to experience more, and if you teach right, you will get it done. There is no other pace quite like it in the United States. We give the students a hands-on experience that no one else gets, and that has what made me continue this until the point to where I am ready to retire."
The music education programs at Opera in the Ozarks have graduated singers to see them go directly to major opera companies, and some of OIO's alumni have even sung at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
"It is a very energizing thing for a person to be a part of someone else earning success," Swiggart said. "That is why I teach ... it is about producing a program that fulfills the needs of young people that inspires them to go on and have a life in music."
Swiggart attributes all of his success and all of the opportunities he has enjoyed to his experiences with true professionals at the Fine Arts Colony. He said he and the students he has taught were only able to continue their path thanks to spending time with the great instructors at OIO.