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Tamara Brown
The Wolf (Kyle Pfortmiller) and Little Red Riding Hood (Meredith Taylor) in "Into the Woods," a Stephen Sondheim musical to be performed at the Utah Opera Festival.

It's a small world after all.

Who would have thought that folks from New Zealand, Serbia, Russia, England, China, Spain, Denmark and Vernal would all converge this summer in beautiful little Logan?

"We have eight nations represented. We truly are an international opera company this summer — and we need to be because of the works we've chosen," said Michael Ballam, founder and general director of Utah Festival Opera, which is celebrating its 16th birthday this season.

"We're the only opera company that was born in the '90s and is still around," he said, "and we have always been in the black for our 16 years of existence," a remarkable feat in an era when arts funding is continually getting cut.

Not only is the festival still alive and thriving, but it's bringing in top singers, many of whom have performed at the Metropolitan Opera or are preparing for their Met debuts.

"Out of 106 opera companies, only six function in the summer. So, we're able to get extraordinary talent," Ballam said.

"We're very unique to offer job opportunities here in the summer. The same with the orchestra. Our players come from all the major symphonies across the United States. These folks would rather come to Logan and spend 12 weeks in the most beautiful place on Earth, rather than just sitting around home in the heat."

Ballam, an opera singer himself having performed for more than 20 years, including command performances at the White House and the Vatican, talked about how many performers are thrilled to travel to Logan to get in shape for their fall seasons.

"Performers often have to sing at the Met with only one rehearsal — rehearsal is the most expensive part of putting on opera," Ballam explained. "So, they just bring in someone who knows the role, and they walk through it with the stage manager. It's terrifying!"

This is another benefit of performing in Logan. "By the time we bring the curtain up, our singers have had five different rehearsals with orchestra alone. I don't think there's another opera company with that luxury."

How did all of this opera end up in Logan?

"Opera began in Logan long before it began any place else in the state," said Ballam, who spent a few years compiling the history of opera in Logan, which he says is rather extensive. "Cache County was colonized by Welsh singers. There was an opera house in every community from the Idaho border down through Cache County. Everyone was a European immigrant here, and opera was their form of entertainment."

So, true to their history, Logan and the Utah Festival Opera have lined up a summer season packed with great music and tremendous talent. It includes:

"Manon Lescaut" by Puccini — a rare opportunity to see Puccini's first true masterwork performed.

"Aida" by Verdi. This is not the popular Broadway musical by Elton John and Tim Rice, though it was that version that inspired Ballam to produce the heartbreaking love story. "After seeing Aida maybe 12 times, seeing it on Broadway was the first time I finally got it."

Though he says he relates more to the great compositions of Verdi, "I had always seen the opera in massive arena venues with chariots, elephants and camels. It was a spectacle." Without all the extras, "the story of these three people becomes so clear."

Along with the two full operas, UFO also will produce musicals:

"1776," a Broadway musical by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone, about the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Of 58 productions over the years, this is the only musical the festival has ever repeated, "because of the election happening in November," Ballam said.

"I feel like we have lost touch with what those 26 brave men did in Philadelphia," Ballam said. "I think we are living the fear that John Adams voiced on his deathbed. When asked if he was afraid that a foreign nation will take away our government, he said he was more afraid of: one, apathy and two, divisiveness from within."

Ballam will star in the musical as John Adams, a man for whom Ballam has "a great respect." The festival also has hired an historian to ensure the production is historically correct. In reference to the profanity in the musical, Ballam said, "Those men used colorful language but were never profane." With permission from the author, they've altered the script and used actual speeches given in Congress.

"Into the Woods" by Stephen Sondheim. Ballam carefully points out this is the original version of the classic that he describes as "charming, light, gracious and happy," rather than the reworked version, which is darker. "I love the message: Careful the things you say, children will listen. That message speaks to me very deeply."

"Gypsy." The festival also will feature an old-fashioned, radio-show version of "Gypsy" for two performances only. "People need to get their tickets now because they're going to go fast." Since the festival already has a symphony on staff, it employs the full orchestra to play "Gypsy" too, "it will be a rare treat to hear Sondheim's classic score with a full orchestra."

The cast will all wear 1940s-era costumes and step up to the old-fashioned microphones. This style also allows UFO "to handle the strippers with care, and it will still be a family friendly show."

Utah Festival Opera, which will expand its season next year, offers another benefit for arts lovers: "In Logan, you come to immerse yourself in the art form." Ballam notes that normally folks go see a show, head home, go to bed and have to work the next day. But with all the additional lectures, tours and classic films that run in conjunction with the festival, "people can immerse themselves in the art form — that's what makes us different."

If you go ...

What: Utah Festival Opera

Where: Ellen Eccles Theatre, 59 S. 100 West, Logan

When: Through Aug. 9

How much: $12-$74

Phone: 435-750-0300 or 800-262-0074

E-mail: [email protected]