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Big on opera: Utah Opera's artistic director shares his passion for all things opera

Published: Saturday, July 26 2014 3:00 p.m. MDT

Christopher McBeth is artistic director of Utah Opera.

Utah Opera

SALT LAKE CITY — In the nearly 15 years that he’s been the face of Utah Opera, 44-year-old Christopher McBeth has managed to, among many other things, dispel the notion that opera is for wimps.

At 6-foot-6, with a booming voice, outsized personality and the enthusiasm of an English soccer fan, the former high school basketball player is about as sedate as a pit bull.

Although a friendly one.

It helps that McBeth, who grew up the son of a Methodist minister in La Crosse, Wisconsin, is himself a convert. He first learned to sing in the church choir and had no time for opera until he unwittingly enrolled in an Iowa college that turned out to be a hotbed for the art.

His plan going into Simpson College, a private liberal arts school near Des Moines, Iowa, was to study to become the next great high school choral teacher — an aspiration that quickly derailed when the director of the music department talked him into taking his accelerated 3½-week opera course.

He’s been studying — and extolling — opera ever since.

At Simpson, he found a fellow opera zealot in a beautiful soprano named Julie Poe, whom he met on the first day of class. Six weeks after they graduated, they were married and set off together for Baylor University to get matching master’s degrees in vocal performance.

After that, they moved to Houston, where Julie worked with the young artist training program at Houston Grand Opera and McBeth got a job working the opera company’s phone bank — easily the lowest rung in the business.

But talent rises, and it wasn’t long before his love and knowledge of all things opera became apparent and he was moved into the artistic side of the operation. Eventually, he wound up as top aide to general director David Gockley, a revered figure in American opera who taught McBeth the opera business inside and out.

With Gockley’s endorsement, McBeth left Houston to work as artistic administrator and director of production for Fort Worth Opera.

In late 1999, after only a short time in Fort Worth and after he had just turned 30, Utah Opera lured him away to become its artistic administrator.

In 2005, McBeth was promoted to artistic director — the person in charge of all facets of the company — a position he holds to this day.

His wife, Julie, who like her husband forewent a performing career to concentrate on the more stable life of artistic administration, is executive assistant to Melia Tourangeau, president and CEO of Utah Symphony & Utah Opera. Together, the McBeths form a formidable team in the Utah arts community.

Utah Opera has enjoyed tremendous growth, popularity and national acclaim under the direction of Christopher McBeth, who recently sat down with the Deseret News to talk about all things opera.

DN: What is it about opera that grabbed you and won’t let go?

CM: Someone was describing it in an article I was reading recently that I think sums it up nicely: Opera is the Olympics for the human voice. The depth of the art form is just captivating. People soon find out, for better or worse, that I can start talking about opera and the joy it can bring people really quickly. They’ll marvel at how passionate I am, and I find myself giggling a little bit because what others find as overwhelming enthusiasm is just my normal way of talking.

DN: And this unbridled enthusiasm can all be traced back to ...

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