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September 5,  2004

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C A C H E  V A L L E Y  E D I T I O N - Feature Article

 

      

A Decade of Quality from the Utah Festival Opera

The successful operatic career of Michael Ballam came to an unexpected detour when an unknown illness claimed his voice. In order to heal, Ballam returned home from Europe. The results of his extended stay in Logan, Utah were exponential. Shortly after he arrived, Ballam discovered the grand old opera house on Main Street was slotted for demolition. Ballam rallied the community together to save and restore the building which now stands as a majestic landmark known as The Ellen Eccles Theatre in Logan's historical downtown. Ballam said, "The communities love for heritage and beautiful art saved this building." Kevin Massey who has performed in the theatre said, "the building is exquisite."

   

After the opera house was restored, Ballam formed the Utah Festival Opera Company (UFOC). Now a decade later, the opera company has firm roots in the community, state and country. "Money Magazine" ranked it as one of the world's top 20 summer opera festivals. Darrell Babidge, an opera performer from England now living in New York City said, "it is one of the best kept secrets." Babidge came to Logan five years ago as a student apprentice. Babidge and his wife Jennifer Welch-Babidge both performed in UFOC's 2004 summer season. Babidge explained that his wife has performed throughout Europe and the United States including, The Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera and Carnegie Hall. In all their travels they have found few opera companies that surpass UFOC. As found on the UFOC website, "the [summer] season includes four productions of grand opera, operetta, light opera, and/or seldom-seen Broadway-style musical theater."

Michael Ballam

 

Ellen Eccles Theatre

   

Ballam, now serving as the general director of UFOC, has made quality an uncompromising attribute in all its productions. All those auditioning for the productions are well informed to expect long days of dedicated work. During the rehearsal process few complaints are heard because of the unique environment. Although Ballam requires long days of rehearsals, the environment is nurturing and comfortable. Ballam said, "It is a cut throat industry out there. I wanted to create an environment where the performers would not feel threatened." Massey who played Dickon in "The Secret Garden" said, "[it is a] wonderfully encouraging and safe company. We want each other to do well on stage. The fear of failure is gone." When asked if he would come back, Massey said, "Absolutely! I feel honored to be among such talent." Ballam does his best to choose artists with strong honorable characters to make the team work. Tamara Elaine Mumford who has performed in four seasons said, "I wouldn't recommend the program to singers who do not have a very good work ethic." 
    
The young artist Beth Alison who played Mary Lennox in "The Secret Garden" appreciated the artistic license that director Jack Shouse allowed. Alison explained, "he was laid back and well organized. He trusted us and wanted to see what we could come up with. If he didn't like our ideas we would often meet in the middle. If I said, 'I don't think Mary would do it that way,' he would listen to my reasoning and often respond by saying, 'you're right Mary wouldn't do it that way.'" To summarize her UFOC experience Alison said, "I expected great things but I couldn't imagine how great, great could be." 
    
There are many qualities that bring performers to UFOC. Leslie Ann Hendricks, now performing in New York City, has performed in lead roles for three UFOC seasons. She said, "Dotty Danner is perhaps my favorite director. At the time, I was considering getting out of the business all together because while I have worked quite a lot I've never really gotten over that hump of being able to do it exclusively and work consistently. Working with Dotty was such a superb experience that I decided to give it another go. While performing I thought, 'This could be on Broadway' - it was that good. Artistically I was totally fulfilled by it. " 
    
One of UFOC's rare qualities is the full orchestra in the pit, a sound rarely heard in today's live theatre. Surprisingly, it can still be found in the mountains of the American West. Hendricks said, "to perform with a full orchestra is such a rare opportunity; you just don't see that any more." A maestro stands and with majesty leads a 36 piece orchestra and a full stage of performers. It is a moving experience that all should hear and see. Charles Edwin Taylor who is currently performing at The Metropolitan Opera said, "[UFOC has] a top notch orchestra led by great conductors." 
   
Ballam has voiced his opinion on many occasions about the performing arts of our day. He fears it is moving farther and farther away from being noble and praiseworthy. Ballam created UFOC to produce operas and musicals that would leave the patrons better than when they arrived. Whether through showing the penance of bad choices or the blessings of good choices, both can be powerful teachers. Jack Shouse, set designer for "La Cenerentola," recognizes the power of theatre. "It is not like sitting at home with your surround sound home theater. There are 1,100 other people sharing the experience with you. Each moment you are receiving the performers' energy and you are sending yours back. You will come again because you value what it means to be a human being." - Shauna Leavitt


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