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About Utah: Logan arts scene enriched by Michael Ballam's return home

Published: Sunday, July 15 2012 11:50 p.m. MDT

Michael Ballam, originator of Logan's celebrated opera festival now in its 20th year, holds up his family's favorite motto, "expect a miracle."

Lee Benson, Deseret News

LOGAN — I came home because I was dying …"

If that sounds to you like a terrific start for an opera, pull up a chair.

And it's not the start to only one opera, but to the entire monthlong Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre, which last week opened to begin its 20th season at the Ellen Eccles Theatre.

Michael Ballam — Logan's gift to the arts — is who came home because he was dying. Or sure thought he was.

That was in 1987. He was performing "La traviata" in Caracas, Venezuela, when he lost his voice. He rushed to New York City, where he was living at the time, and went straight to the throat doctor, who wasn't sure what the opera singer was suffering from (this was before MRIs) but was sure it wasn't good.

"He told me to get my affairs in order," says Ballam, who sought a second opinion in Houston and a third in Denver, both of which resulted in the same head-shaking as in New York. He was a seriously sick man.

He knew it was time to move home.

Says Ballam, "New York City is a good place to live; it's not a good place to die."

He'd grown up in Logan and graduated from Utah State University before the world's classical stages started calling his name. Now, a decade later, he was back, still a young man in his 30s but without enough strength to stand.

It was at this point that the plot thickened — stay with us, this is life imitating art — and a Logan businessman and artist named Eugene Needham asked Ballam to sit for a portrait.

As they visited, Ballam learned that Needham, who was enduring his own health struggles, had just bought the block along Logan's Main Street that included the 70-year-old Capitol Theatre — once a shining beacon for the arts but now a decaying visage of its former self.

Needham said it was going to be torn down.

Sick or not, Ballam couldn't bear the thought. He first talked Needham into donating the building to someone who would renovate it and then talked the city of Logan into taking ownership.

But the city had a condition: Ballam had to find the funds to renovate it.

It was about this time that Ballam's LDS stake decided to hold a fast for their struggling tenor. And it was not long afterward that medical science finally figured out what was making him so sick: a maxillary, or sinus, infection that had invaded the back of his skull and was working its way to his lungs.

The doctors operated in time, put a steel plate in his head, sewed him back up, prescribed massive doses of antibiotics, and he quickly began to recover.

In the meantime, a number of arts lovers caught the spirit of what Ballam was trying to do with the old theatre on Main and pitched in with help and volunteer work. When the Eccles Foundation contributed $6.5 million, the Ellen Eccles Theatre emerged from the rubble, its ornate murals and elegant plasterwork intact.

Humbled by seeing the selfless service of others, and by both his sickness and the spiritual nature of his recovery, Ballam made a vow to "listen more carefully" in the future so he could be in tune when it was his turn to help others. Such behavior didn't come natural to him, however, so a few months later when Utah State asked him if he would join the faculty and teach music for a year, he first said no.

It took an elbow nudge from his wife, Laurie, to make him reconsider.

"Maybe this is one of those times to do what you promised and listen more carefully," she said.

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