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Utah Festival Opera driven by values

Ballam bases company on 13th Article of Faith

LOGAN, Utah — Having passed its 10th year, Michael Ballam's Utah Festival Opera is something of an anomaly both in its prosperity and its guiding values.

"Julius Caesar" was produced for the 2000 season.
"Julius Caesar" was produced for the 2000 season. Photo: Photo courtesy Utah Festival Opera

"We are the only opera company that's part of Opera America that was founded in and survived the '90s," said Brother Ballam, known to many Church members through his recordings and personal appearances.

Why has it survived when others have failed? With theatrical aplomb and pragmatic consciousness, Brother Ballam responds to the question by extracting a few bank notes from his pocket.

"Most opera companies and symphony orchestras, if they're really successful, can make maybe a third of their income off of ticket sales; many don't get that."

Philanthropy must make up the remainder, and the Logan-based opera company has been blessed with a substantial outpouring of that, Brother Ballam said. "And it has come from people who do not generally view the arts as something they give their philanthropy to," he said. "I think they're more interested in helping us because of what our mission is. And our mission isn't just about the art."

In fact, the company was founded principally on the 13th Article of Faith, he said, alluding to the statement "If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things."

Though the classical arts might generally be thought of as praiseworthy, that is not always the case, he acknowledges.

"The classical arts are usually safer," he said. "However, contemporary tastes have taken works that have seemingly been very tame and made them rather startling."

 Melvin Lowery (deceased) and Michael Ballam in 1776
Melvin Lowery (deceased) and Michael Ballam in 1776 Photo: Photo courtesy Utah Festival Opera

Moreover, the company's eclectic repertoire includes operetta and musical theater. "And when you choose to do American musical theater, the palette of expression changes. People are used to a lot of vulgarity these days, and that vulgarity has found its way to the Rocky Mountains. We don't choose to be a part of that."

Not that the company's offerings are whitewashed and insipid.

"I've studied Brigham Young's original seasons at the Salt Lake Theater, what he produced," he said. "And they were very pithy dramas. He believed very strongly that people should look at 'the consequence of choice' is how he put it. That if we make bad choices then we have to live with the consequence and we have to realize that sometimes our bad choices influence generations. Not all of his plays would have been produced by Walt Disney. He felt it was important for people to work through moral and ethical decisions on the stage, not in life."

Lamentably, he said, some producers today are apt to remove any lessons about accountability, deleting, for example, the finale in "Don Giovanni" which drives home the message of consequences that stem from wrongdoing. "People are uncomfortable with the fact that if you choose ill, you'll reap ill."

Pursuant to its mission, Utah Festival Opera is apt to choose works that are not always the most popular. One of its productions for this summer season, for example, is Verdi's "Nabucco," the story of Nebuchadnezzar destroying Solomon's temple and taking the children of Israel captive into Babylonia.

"We're choosing to do this because it is a very poignant story for our people, the idea of religious persecution, being exiled. This could be about Kirtland or Nauvoo. It happens to be Jerusalem, but we understand the principle. And though the music is glorious, I feel very strongly that the subject needs to be addressed. . . . We are more concerned about enlightening people than we are filling a cash register, though we need to do both."

The former, in fact cannot be done without the latter. Nearly one-fourth of the company's $2.2 million budget goes to support a purely philanthropic effort, the "Opera for Children by Children."

"What A Night!"  can't use names
"What A Night!" can't use names Photo: Photo courtesy Utah Festival Opera

"This year, we will have gone into nearly 104 classrooms throughout the state of Utah and beyond and empowered teachers to assist their classes in creating works of art," he said. "The children write the stories, they write the music, they design the costumes, they direct themselves, they cast themselves, they manage themselves."

A values-driven opera company that defies statistics for survival is something of a curiosity in the industry. For marketing director Darla Seamons, the explanation is found in a unique administrative approach. She said she was recruited, having never worked in marketing or opera. Before accepting the position, she was asked to pray about the decision.

"We feel a great responsibility for what we do, that we do the right thing and listen to the Spirit," she said.

"We have 200 employees, and, when the season really gets going, maybe 20-25 percent are LDS," Brother Ballam said. "And I would never force my personal belief system on anyone else."

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