Opera royalty comes to Carroll County

Tuesday, July 15, 2014
Metropolitan opera star Latonia Moore, an Opera in the Ozarks alum, poses with OIO General Director Emeritus Jim Swiggart. (David Bell/Carroll County News)

CARROLL COUNTY -- When bluesman BB King came to Eureka Springs to play at the Aud, it was a big deal.

When opera diva and Metropolitan Opera star Latonia Moore came to Carroll County last week, it was an equally big deal.

Moore took time out of her busy international schedule, which includes performing around the world, to come back to Opera in the Ozarks.

While Moore journeyed back to Opera in the Ozarks to teach master classes at OIO, she primarily came to honor a mentor and friend who as much as anyone else helped launch her meteoric career -- Jim Swiggart, OIO General Director Emeritus.

He was recognized for his 25 years of service at a gala concert and reception at Bentonville's Arend Arts Center last Sunday afternoon, with more than 300 in attendance.

The path Moore is on now is miles away from where she would have dared to dream and is a direct result of her 1999 summer encounter with the opera workshop.

Moore's background is like many blues and jazz singers, steeped in the traditions of church gospel music.

"My grandfather was a [Baptist] preacher," she says. "And my sister and I were in the choir. So it all started with church."

Moore studied music at the University of North Texas in Denton. She concentrated on gospel and jazz until one of her professors convinced her to study classical singing.

"Jazz is a classic art form," Moore says.

But classical music is where her voice has taken her. When asked if she still does some jazz, she just gives a sly smile.

In the summer of 1999 Moore was accepted into Opera in the Ozarks, the summer program at Inspiration Point Fine Arts Colony started in 1950 by music professor Dr. Henry Hobart.

"Latonia had a major role in one of the operas," Swiggart says.

But just before the performances were to begin Moore told Swiggart she needed to return home to Houston.

"[My wife and] I spent the evening with her and the next morning she made the decision to stay," Swiggart said.

That decision may have been the pivotal point in Moore's career because the next summer, at only 21, she was selected to sing with the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Moore praised OIO for giving her the opportunity to sing operas in the original language, with a live orchestra, in front of an audience.

"[OIO] was one of the few programs for young opera performers where I could do a leading role," she said.

Moore will next sing Verdi's Requiem, in Quebec in August, and will return to the Met in December to sing the leading role in Verdi's Aida.

Also performing at the Gala concert honoring Swiggart was '96 and '99 alum Joel Burcham. The tenor has established himself as one of the nation's top operatic and classical singers. The Nashville, Ill., native makes his European debut in August in Eisenstadt and Vienna, Austria.

"Opera in the Ozarks gave me the confidence that I could sing in operas," said the up and-coming young star, who returned to honor Swiggart. Burcham is a voice professor at the University of Oklahoma.

Swiggart and his wife, Janice, were brought on the stage, along with several of his children, grandchildren and friends, to receive a musical tribute. OIO Creative Director Thomas Cockrell, adapted a portion of a Wagner opera, The Master-Singers of Nuremberg, which heaped often humorous praise on the man of the evening.

The Oklahoma native was presented with a new, red "Oklahoma Sooners -- 7-Times National Champions" cap, and was clearly moved by the depth of the event.

When asked what the evening was like, Swiggart said, "Phenomenal. [It] brought back incredible memories of seasons past, memories of Professor Hobart ... and [all] the professionals who came to Northwest Arkansas to share their knowledge with aspiring performers, like myself, which shaped my musical career.

"[It was] wonderful to see so many area arts supporters and many from other states, who drove many miles to celebrate the history of Opera in the Ozarks, and the role I have played as General Director," Swiggart said. "My deepest thanks to those who performed and displayed the best of our art form. There is magic on the mountain!"

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