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.
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?’ ”
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.
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.
To make this and 20 previous festivals happen, Ballam — also the general director of UFOMT — realized he would need to do something that had never been done before, which was “to make this place that could rehearse to the extent to which the artist felt truly confident when they went on stage.”
Ballam’s debut in opera was less than ideal, as he only had one day to prepare with very little direction. “The stage manager took me around, and I was told, ‘You sing the first aria here, the duet happens here, you kill her here. We’ll see you tonight at the performance.’ ” He knew he didn’t want his festival to be like that, stressful and anxiety-inducing.
With more than 250 performers, musicians and crew members participating — many working in multiple shows — Ballam knew they would need more time to make each festival worth seeing. For five weeks, they rehearse and prepare, to the point that everyone involved is ready to go by opening night, making sure that audiences get the most out of every performance, making the festival "a destination," and not just something to do.
To make sure audiences feel the same, Ballam says he has to be picky about who he hires. “Everyone has to be of professional stature,” Ballam said. “Because we’re not going to get people to come from places like New York City or San Francisco to see something where a majority of it are local people.”
This year, he is very confident with his choices. With three performers who have sung with the New York Metropolitan Opera, two who have sung at the New York Opera and Carnegie Hall, and many who have made professional careers of acting and singing, Ballam knows this season will be excellent.
For performers Scott Reardon, Jason Stearns and Ian DeNolfo, the feeling is mutual.
But how did Ballam manage to get these guys to come all the way to Logan?
Reardon, who is from Los Angeles and playing Pharoah in "Joseph" and Perchik in "Fiddler," is excited about being a part of bringing ennobling art to the stage.
"It truly allows a lesson to be learned," he said. Along with that, "It allows you to enjoy yourself. The theater is the only place you can go in this world, I believe, and sit down for two hours, or three and no one is looking at you, and you can truly feel and react however you want. And you truly are witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing."
Like Reardon, DeNolfo, from Bryn Mawr, Pa., who is playing Otello in "Otello," is happy to have a chance to master his craft and help audiences feel something through the music. "I try to find something in all the characters I play in myself," he said. "Once I can have some empathy for what their psychological processes are, I just try to become those guys. If you just listen to what the composer was writing, and you listen to and study the words, it becomes very apparent what you should be doing, what you should be feeling, and more importantly what you should be projecting to the audience."
"The music is an unspoken emotional accompaniment to the word," added Sarasota, Fla., resident Stearns, who will be portraying Otello's trusted yet tragically manipulative friend Iago. "It can say things that words don't. I listen to the music and what the music is under the word and it becomes very clear what the composer wanted."
Stearns was also drawn to the rare opportunity to play a role he has always wanted in an opera that just isn't done very much anymore. "Not that it's obscure or not worth doing," he said. "The production is a traditional one: beautiful scenery, gorgeous costumes, a wonderful professional orchestra. You're going to get the real thing here. It really is an unusual opportunity for a small community to hear something really big. They're going to get a surprise."
Another huge component is simply the respect that performers have for Ballam.
"He has truly created a very family-oriented, community-based company. It's really like a home, like a family," Reardon said. "I've had a really great experience so far."
"He's done an amazing job," DeNolfo said. "It's a very uniquely special place because it's dedicated to the art form of drama on stage here, which I think is not always the case with other companies.
"I would venture to say that there's a good likelihood they're going to see a better production here than they would see anywhere else. It's going to be phenomenal," he said.
The young Ballam featured in the portrait in the Dansante had no idea what was in store when he agreed to be the model for the painting, but the current one couldn't be happier with the results.
"This is why my hair is white now," he joked. "But I love it."
For more information on Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre and tickets, visit www.utahfestival.org.
Kate Sullivan is an intern at the Deseret News with Mormon Times. She is a student at Brigham Young University. Contact her via email: email@example.com