When Michael Ballam was 15, he rented a tuxedo, caught a train to San Francisco on a class trip, and went to see his first opera, Tristan and Isolde, at the War Memorial Opera House.
He was awed by the orchestra. “They had 12 base violins and a hundred instruments,” he recalls. “I counted them.” He was equally dazzled by the costumes, the lights, the sets, and the singing.
“It had everything I loved, all together,” he says.
At intermission, young Ballam whispered to the woman next to him, “I’m going to do that someday.” She gave him a patronizing pat on the arm.
Ten years later, at age 25, Ballam sang the lead role in the same opera, on the same stage.
It was a long way from his hometown of Logan, Utah. “It really was statistically impossible for a kid from rural Utah to have a career in opera,” he says. “The statistics show you I’d have been better off wanting to become Karl Malone.”
Ballam beat the statistics. Eventually he performed at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and stood on stage with such opera stars as Beverly Sills, Joan Sutherland, and Placido Domingo. Then one night, while singing the lead role in La Traviata, he felt something deep in his throat—an infection it turned out, which doctors were unable to stem.
Fearing the worst, Ballam returned home to Cache Valley. Though unable to perform, he was determined to bring professional opera to Logan and began the task of establishing what today is the Utah Festival Opera Company.
It wasn’t easy. For six years, Ballam sought financial support from the state and from local citizens. He found a board of directors willing to contribute time and money and convinced a real estate developer to donate the old Capitol Theater to the city rather than gut it for a new skating rink. Three years into his quest, the theater was saved from a fire that witnesses say could have consumed most of downtown Logan.
A local philanthropist, Ellen Eccles, threw her financial weight into Ballam’s work, and in 1993, the opera company opened in the beautifully renovated Ellen Eccles Theater—where in the 1920s, such greats as John Phillip Susa and the Marx Brothers played to overflowing audiences. Ballam’s dream had come true, but he is quick to pass credit on to others.
“Everyone on the board stood to lose a lot of money,” if the company didn’t succeed, he says. “Nobody had any financial gain, they just believed it was important. And we had miracles: funding from the governor, and from the Eccles family, the building being preserved from a fire.
“We had some help,” he repeats, looking skyward.
Sharon Davis, an opera soprano from San Francisco who performs with the company, says it “ranks among the best in the country.” The Utah festival hosts not only grand opera, but operettas, light opera, and Broadway-style musical theater productions.
“The company is unique because Mr. Ballam makes us feel like we are a large family, and we all work together,” says Susan Deauvono, another singer with the company.
Ballam also has taken opera out of the theater and into local schools, where he exposes roughly 1,250 elementary students to opera every year.
“His program has taught new skills, built students’ confidence and self-esteem, and challenged our students in new ways,” says Paula Olsen, an elementary school principal who has been involved with Ballam’s opera outreach efforts for five years. It gives students “the courage to risk, the courage to try,” she adds.
Although fully recovered from the mysterious infection that almost killed him, Ballam chose not to return to his career in New York.
“None of that touched me as deeply as standing in the wings when we did Carousel with all those children” recently, he explains. “That was more fulfilling than taking bows at the Kennedy Center.”
Today, during its four-week summer season, it’s estimated that the Utah Festival Opera Company has a $5 million dollar impact on the community’s economy. Its education programs now serves 44 area classrooms.
“The adjective I want on my tombstone,” Ballam says, “is this: ‘He was a kind man.’ The reason I’ve done all these crazy things is because I have a great love for humanity. And the arts can help.”
Whatever is written on Michael Ballam’s tombstone, it’s certain that every spring the children of Cache Valley will perform their own works, on a real stage, jabbering about Verdi and Pucini as if these great opera stars were close friends.