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Lee Benson, Deseret News
Since 1993, Logan native Michael Ballam has produced and directed the Utah Festival Opera & Music Theatre.

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.

After further pondering, he said yes to the teaching position, which gave him a hometown to stay in and three hats to wear. On Tuesdays and Thursdays he taught music at the university. On the other weekdays he worked on the theatre renovation. And on weekends he flew off to sing professionally.

The more he traveled, the more he wondered why Logan didn't have more opera of its own. Especially now that it had an arts palace that wouldn't have to hide its face even if it was in the middle of Broadway.

So it was that in the summer of 1993, six months after the opening of the 1,100-seat Ellen Eccles Theatre and six years after returning from NYC to his hometown, Michael Ballam's summer opera extravaganza began.

At first it was called the Utah Festival Opera Company, a title that has since evolved into the tongue-tying Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre because Broadway-type musicals have become an annual part of the program.

This year, the 20th season lineup — the festival lasts from July 11 to Aug. 11 — includes "My Fair Lady" and "Kiss Me Kate" alongside Puccini's "Tosca" and Gounod's "Faust."

Every year, the festival has grown. The first season it had a budget of $300,000 and broke even. This year the budget is $3.5 million and it's expected to bring in $3.5 million.

"We've always broken even, and I hope we always will," says Ballam, who is playing Alfred P. Doolittle in "My Fair Lady."

He's not just the festival's producer and director, he's also one of the stars.

Not to mention the founder.

And one who, by the way, is in fine health.

It wasn't always that way. Twenty-five years ago he came home because he was dying . . .

Someday, someone's got to turn this into an opera.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. Email: benson@desnews.com