LOGAN — The Utah Festival Opera begins its 19th season with a new name and a greater emphasis on education. The festival made the switch in March and launched a website with the revised name and new logo in April. It will now be known as the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre, or UFOMT.
“Maybe we should’ve done that from the very beginning,” said Michael Ballam, general director and founder of the festival. He said the altered name more fully reflects the festival, which has included musicals with operas since its beginning.
Ballam added that the logo's design emphasizes the word “festival.” Before, the festival simply produced a repertory of shows. But today, with the education outreach programs and various ways audiences are involved and informed, UFOMT is more completely a month-long festival, Ballam said.
UFOMT has often been recognized for the much-loved Opera by Children program, but it offers even more than that.
The festival sponsors programs for adults with its Festival Academy, classes and seminars in performing, teaching and creating productions. The festival provides opportunities to tour stages and meet the performers. “Informances,” brief discussions with the cast and crew about the plot of the performance and other background information, will occur an hour before every production
The Festival Conservatory of the Performing Arts recently finished its inaugural year. Conservatory director Vanessa Ballam, recently appointed as education director, called it a big success.
“When you start something for the first time, you never really know how it will be received,” she said. However, it was more than well received.
“Musical theater training seems to be something that families are clamoring for in Cache Valley,” she said.
The conservatory runs in semesters like a school year, with training for youths ages 4-18 in singing, dancing and acting.
Directors are starting a new program, Camp Broadway, during the last week of this season. The week-long camp for kids ages 6-18 will be workshop intensive and offer something the regular conservatory doesn’t: the opportunity to work one-on-one with the cast.
One special event the program directors were particularly excited about was the 1st annual Utah High School Musical Theater Awards. Multiple high schools presented numbers from their musicals at the Kent Concert Hall at Utah State University in April. An awards ceremony followed.
“(It was) one of the most exciting experiences I’ve had in a theater,” Michael Ballam said of the performances. Various adjudicators enlisted by UFOMT viewed and judged each high school’s musical.
“This is going to be very important in the future of this state,” Ballam said of the conservatory programs, adding that schools today are starved of arts programs because of various budget cuts and new educational demands. Ballam trusts that the conservatory is in good hands with his daughter as director.
UFOMT has plans to extend the high school musical theater program to every high school in the state next year and eventually expand the conservatory as well, drawing students from outside of Cache Valley.
“It’s really going to go places,” Ballam said. “I can just feel it in my bones.”
The education students of both conservatory and academy receive is not the only benefit of these outreach programs.
“I now have a pulse on where the talent base is in the state,” Ballam said.
In fact, Ballam found his lead character for “Oliver!” in a high school performance of “Les Miserables.” He describes 11-year-old Jace Salcido as “sublime” and perfect for the role.
“Everyone’s going to want to take him home and adopt him. He is so adorable,” Ballam said.
The musical, Ballam said, was one of the first imports to Broadway. Based on Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” this rendition of Lionel Bart's musical will feature Jace as Oliver, Cameron Conrad as the Artful Dodger and Michael Ballam as Fagin.
Rodgers and Hammerstein's “South Pacific” is back again after 10 years. Branch Fields, who will star as Emile de Becque, played a minor role last time the festival put on the show.
“It’s especially joyous for me to have one of our young apprentices become a star and come back home,” Ballam said of Fields.
The show will also star Molly Mustonen and festival favorite Mark Womack. One big draw for this production is the 40-piece orchestra. Most revivals use fewer instruments. Ballam said audience members “won’t hear it like this in New York or anywhere else.”
“Don Giovanni,” one of Mozart’s masterpieces, was originally titled “Sin is Punished,” Ballam said. The exciting and even horrific ending Mozart wrote depicted Don Giovanni being dragged down to hell. It was rewritten into a happier, vaudeville-style ending to please audiences, he said.
Ballam made sure the festival’s version will be “exactly as he (Mozart) envisioned it,” adding that he is pleased with the set and stage effects constructed for the final scene.
“I’d like them (the audience) to leave the theater saying, ‘Whoa, better watch what I do,’” Ballam said. He wants the opera to give the message that behavior does have consequences. Womack stars as the lead character along with Rochelle Bard and Eleni Calenos.
Modest Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” isn’t performed often because the Russian language and the large chorus requirement present a problem for many companies. However, the festival has hired a Russian director and coach for the opera, and Craig Jessop’s American Festival Chorus will be joining them again.
“We could never have contemplated doing something like that were it not for Craig Jessop being here,” Ballam said.
The opera will star Craig Hart and Kristopher Irmiter.
Other performances include the German operetta “The Merry Widow” and the return of “Eight Hands, Two Pianos,” showcasing the four piano soloists who sit in for rehearsals before the orchestra arrives. The American Festival Chorus will also join UFOMT for “The Mozart Requiem.”
“It’s time,” Ballam said. “This is the year to come because there’s something for everyone, and it’s a wonderful season for children.” He went on to discuss that every performance can be used to teach children about history, classical music and literature.
Vanessa Ballam admires what her father has done with the festival as it approaches its 19th season. It’s not just a presentation of good music for a month. It’s become a time of sharing and education.
“It’s amazing to see what one person’s vision can create,” she said.
For tickets, schedules and education information, visit www.ufomt.org.