Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre enters 21st season

Published: Saturday, July 6 2013 2:15 p.m. MDT

"Fiddler on the Roof," starring Michael Ballam as Tevye, opens July 13 at the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre in Logan, Utah.

Tamara Brown

LOGAN — The portrait of Michael Ballam hanging in the Dansante practice facility in Logan, Utah, could serve as a representation of all the good he has accomplished — whether for the city of Logan or for performing arts in general. This accomplishment is also known as the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre, which is now celebrating its 21st season, starting July 10.

The history

It all started when Ballam became ill in 1986, and no one knew what was wrong.

“I expected to die at the age of 102 being shot by a jealous tenor on stage while I’m sustaining a high C,” Ballam joked. After a series of doctor appointments that left him thinking he was likely in his last chapter, Ballam moved with his family from New York back to his native Logan to be closer to his father, who was in the medical community there.

Eventually, doctors discovered a bone marrow infection, and Ballam was able to have surgery and recover. But before that, he got a call from local businessman and artist Eugene Needham asking if he would stand as a model for a portrait he was working on for a class — the same one that would end up in the Dansante.

About the third time Ballam went for a painting session, Needham was late because he was buying some real estate.

“When I asked where, he replied, ‘I bought South Main,’ ” Ballam laughed. After more inquiry, Ballam discovered that the Capitol Theatre on Main Street — which was slowly falling apart and collecting dust after years of neglect — was going to be torn down to make way for a bookstore and more parking.

Ballam didn’t know why yet, but tearing it down just felt wrong. “How about giving the theater away?” he asked. Needham, who was suffering from cancer at the time, was skeptical. But Ballam persisted. “I said to him, ‘If this is our last chapter, wouldn’t it be nice to do something of value?’ ”

It worked.

After a process that Ballam said could take hours to explain, the theater was restored and renamed after early Logan resident and philanthropist Ellen Eccles. But that still left the question of what was to be done with it. By that time, Ballam was on the road to recovery, and New York was calling him to get back on the road.

But something told him his work in Logan wasn’t quite finished.

“I thought, ‘wait a minute.’ If I hadn’t been here during that little window of time, that theater would be a parking lot,” Ballam said. “So there must be something, some reason I’m supposed to be here.” It was then that he came up with the idea for a festival, to use the theater for the purpose in which it was originally built — performance.

Twenty-one years later, Ballam says he now understands why he needed to stay.

The concept

What he wanted to create was a place where people could come together to “experience ennobling art. … That means that they leave the theater a better person than when they came in,” Ballam said. “I want to do works that cause people to look deeply into what they believe, see it enacted on the stage and then go out resolved to do better.”

This year’s lineup features operas “The Flying Dutchman” and “Otello,” and musicals “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “Fiddler on the Roof” — in which Ballam will be playing the lead role of Tevye. Along with the four main stage productions are numerous other classes, special concerts, tours, breakfasts and literary seminars, bringing the total number of festival events to 129. All fit into 32 days.

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