By Kelsey Schwab,
Deseret News
Published: Saturday, June 27, 2015

Nearly 280 professional performers from Broadway, the Metropolitan Opera and other organizations around the world are spending the summer in Logan to perform at the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre.

“They don’t come for the pay; they come for the experience,” said Michael Ballam, the founding general director of UFOMT, which has been an annual tradition for 23 years.

The festival will feature 136 events from July 8 to Aug. 8, including vocal and orchestral concerts, competitions, educational workshops and discussions, backstage tours and four major opera and musical theater performances.

This year’s production lineup includes “Man of La Mancha,” “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” “La Boheme” and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Carousel.”

“I promise if people will come to see our season, their lives will be changed for the better,” Ballam said. “We’re not really here to entertain. Our mission statement is about producing ennobling works. In other words, our job is to make sure you leave the theater a better person than you were when you came. We only do works that cause people to resolve to be better.”

In accordance with the festival’s mission, there will be hands-on opportunities in addition to the productions. One of the workshops will feature a new opera called “Rose in Flames.” The librettist for the opera is Mark Medoff, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of “Children of a Lesser God.”

In addition to his administrative responsibilities, Ballam will play the lead role of Don Quixote in “Man of La Mancha.” He said he has played the role several times over the past 47 years.

“It has been nine years since I played him most recently, and I know a heck of a lot more about ‘following your quest’ than I did nine years ago,” Ballam said. “I’ve battled a lot more windmills and giants, and I have been striving to bring a little grace into the world a lot more.”

Karen Keltner, one of the conductors of the symphony for 19 years, said she also has matured from her years of experience with UFOMT.

“When I began, I was too young and too passionate about doing it to even realize there were obstacles,” Keltner said. “I really had blinders on, and there were and are and still are, but you just do it, and then you look around and wake up and still fight against them sometimes, but that’s why it happens. You have to want to do it more than anything.”

Barbara Day Turner, another conductor and the music administrator for the festival, has been conducting symphonies since she was 19. She said she is amazed at the level of talent among the actors and musicians who will perform at the festival.

“They work hard, they’re well-trained, they have great attitudes and they are fantastic onstage,” Turner said. “This is a very special place because each show has a different type of orchestration. The most people we have in the pit at one time this summer is 45, which is about the maximum that fits in our pit. I’ve hired 70 musicians total.”

According to Ballam, only 13 instruments are used in a typical Broadway production. At UFOMT, a full symphonic orchestra is used, which is becoming even more rare than it was in the past.

“We work with full orchestrations the way they were originally written, which doesn’t happen anymore on Broadway because it’s too expensive,” Keltner said. “They do it with a few instruments and a synthesizer.”

In addition to performing with a full symphony, artists will greet the audience at the conclusion of each performance. Ballam said UFOMT makes that effort because it “causes the audience to bond with the singers and the singers to bond with members of the community.”

Keltner said it is the quality of the live symphony and the energy of both the performers and the audience that make every performance feel “alive.”

“What’s wonderful about any kind of live theater is that at any given moment we feel different,” Keltner said. “Anything can happen. It’s very spontaneous, and that kind of electricity carries to the audience. You know when something gets extremely quiet, everybody in that pit, in that theater, on that stage is moved. You can’t equate that.”

Ballam said he will be at all 136 festival events dressed in either his Don Quixote costume or his tuxedo. But no matter what he wears, he said, he wants people to come as they are and feel comfortable and welcome.

Ballam referred to himself as “the principal volunteer” of the festival and said he will continue to play that role because he sees what has been achieved as miraculous.

“Our goal is to do something noble,” he said. “I think when you do something noble, which means you’re more concerned about blessing others than you are about blessing yourself, you get a different kind of help and a different kind of inspiration. We have been guided.”