By Jay Wamsley,
Deseret News
Published: Friday, June 10, 2016

LOGAN — The opening of a decadelong refurbishing project to the public and the staging of what founding director Michael Ballam calls the “most resource-intensive opera” the company has ever produced are among the highlights of the upcoming season of Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre.

Ballam said progress on the Utah Theatre — for decades a home for popular movies and more recently a dollar-movie house on West Center Street in Logan — has been slow and incremental. But he calls the restored theater part of a vision to give arts patrons “an event, not just a performance.”

“I envisioned something where we could create something so spectacular as an event that people would come and spend some days here,” he said, explaining how UFOMT came to own a second major theater on the same block as the Eccles Theatre, the more-familiar home of summer seasons of operas and musical productions. “We also have a 150-seat recital hall on this block. We could have a festival that utilizes all three. And we are right next door to the (Utah State University-owned) Lyric Theatre, which does straight shows. I thought it was all anyone could want, making this block a destination and not just a show.”

The 10-year vision, however, had its share of bumps and bruises. In order to make the new Utah Theatre work, he said, a small aging office building next door also needed to be obtained to allow for building needed infrastructure, and that building’s purchase was a labored and expensive process. The Utah Theatre’s stage area also needed to expanded — bumped back into a seldom-used alley. The Utah Department of Transportation had closed the alley, but Ballam said he had to convince nearby owners to close the alley and allow the theater’s expansion.

“We needed as deep a stage as the Eccles’. We needed that flexibility. We needed that alley,” Ballam said.

Another major setback was an unexpected surprise, he said, when a 15-foot space for a huge pipe organ was being dug. The space was being excavated at the front of the orchestra pit to accommodate the refurbished, rebuilt organ and its 15-foot pipes. The first 12 feet of work went uneventfully.

“But as soon as we hit 12 feet and 1 inch, a geyser came up,” Ballam said. “Turns out downtown Logan is sitting on an aquifer, so we had a series of engineers in to figure out a way we could dig even deeper, up to 20 feet, and not injure the aquifer but also not have it come in.”

Ballam said it took three more years to accommodate that change, and he described the fix as a “reinforced concrete bathtub” complete with waterproofing and sump pumps so the aquifer can pass below the theater.

Colors inside the Utah Theatre have been restored to their original hues found beneath layers of other material, including green felt, Ballam said.

“We peeled off pieces to show the layers and found the original dusty rose, teal green, dark green and gold that existed here. We could just see a whisper of the original,” Ballam said.

An artist Ballam knew from his travels in Italy volunteered to make the color restoration inside the theater, working by hand for three months straight to do so.

“We haven’t changed the colors in here; we’ve restored them,” Ballam said.

The Utah Theatre was a movie theater dating back to 1936 and was an opera house before that, Balllam said, as records of its use as such from 1924 have been found.

The 2016 version of the theater has been thoroughly modernized, though, with hydraulics under the stage for “moving the mighty Wurlitzer,” as Ballam is fond of calling the large and largely donated Wurlitzer organ, as well as a 9-foot grand piano. There are also curtains on the wall that are engineered to go up to the ceiling to produce softer sounds or to be hidden away in slim cabinets as needed for other productions that need more lively acoustics.

Add to that the labyrinth of dressing rooms and restrooms, costume rooms, high-tech lighting options and reception areas — including a rooftop terrace — and the reasons the work effort extended to 10 years become more clear.

“As soon as we finished the Eccles Theatre, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had another opera house with a 500-seat space instead of 1,500?’” Ballam said. “Fifteen hundred seats is great for ‘Aida,’ but it’s too big for Mozart chamber operas, for example. Some productions get swallowed up in a 1,500-seat space. A lot of contemporary works are better if people feel a part of the action and not just spectators.”

The new Utah Theater will be a year-round arts venue, Ballam said, and not just a part of the six-week run of operas and musical theater productions staged each summer.

“We are hoping to do every possible thing you can do in a theater — piano recitals, organ recitals, jazz concerts, straight theater, silent films, classic films, festival films,” he said, pointing out the possibilities of a Harry Potter film festival or a week of John Wayne or Kathryn Hepburn movies. There’s a generation, he said, “that has never seen Moses part the Red Sea on the big screen or the chariot races from ‘Ben Hur’ on the big screen.

“I started dreaming like crazy, and everything in this building is a gift, really,” Ballam said. “It will augment what is happening at the Eccles. Opera will live in two places, and they will enhance each other because they are capable of different things. The potential is enormous.”

2016 season lineup

The 24th UFOMT season will start Friday, June 24, with “Peter Pan” staged in the new Utah Theatre.

Ballam said it was always the plan to debut the new addition with “Peter Pan” because that was the first show staged in the Eccles Theatre when it was opened nearly 25 years ago. This particular production, he said, “pushes your technical aspects as far as they can go. And we can do more things with ‘Peter’ here than at the Eccles.”

Ballam said “Peter Pan” will showcase a professional cast and orchestra from all over the world, though all the child actors are local.

“We have a lot of wonderfully surprising technical aspects going on above your head that will really please people,” Ballam said.

“Peter Pan” is not running in repertory with other offerings at the Utah Theatre during the UFOMT season due to the complexity of the flying apparatus. Ballam said UFOMT is using “the same contraptions” that flew Mary Martin in the 1952 version of “Peter Pan.” Next summer, he said, there will likely be more than one production in the Utah Theatre.

Ballam is cast as Capt. Hook, a role in which he has previously performed.

“I’ll be ready to play Hook,” he said. “He’s in my head somewhere, if I can just pull him up.”

Besides the flying “Peter Pan,” four offerings will take the stage at the Eccles Theatre beginning July 6. The offering titled “Puccini’s Trilogy” will likely be what patrons remember as the highlight of the season, Ballam said. He said he was enthralled to see the trilogy — three one-act operas around a central theme — performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City about 10 years ago.

“Usually companies do two but not three, and for good reason. It takes three casts. It’s like doing three operas,” he said, “and will be, without doubt, the most resource-consumptive opera we have ever done to date. It will be the premiere of the show in Utah.”

The central theme of the trilogy is death. “Il Tabarro” (“The Cloak”), the first opera, is a passionate look at death as the result of murder, with a cloak being a key element. “Suor Angelica” (“Sister Angelica”), the second opera, shows “death as a spiritual transition,” Ballam said. The third one-act opera is “Gianni Schicchi” and presents a comedic look at death — it’s a farce with greed, wills, family squabbles and comic overtones.

In the third opera of the trilogy, Ballam said, the curtain rises on a corpse. There will be some guest appearances of corpses, he said, and the last time “Gianni” was staged, Sen. Orrin Hatch, Gov. Michael Leavitt, Frank Layden and others had cameos as corpses.

“In its entirety, it will be very moving to people,” he said. “And they will be able to see three entirely different operas in one night.”

“Ragtime” will take the stage for the first time in Logan after being one of the biggest successes on Broadway in the last 20 years. Ballam described it as “timely” and an “examination of prejudice.” The musical is based on themes of immigration and the United States as a melting pot at the turn of the 20th century.

A trip to New York City to see a revival of “Porgy & Bess” fired Ballam’s desire to add it to this season’s offerings. He said he was disappointed to see and hear the production on a stage half the size of the Eccles, and with a cast half the size it should have been.

“And when I heard one of the two or three greatest overtures written on American soil played by 13 instruments, half of which were synthetic, my heart just fell,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is not “Porgy & Bess.” This is not what Gershwin intended.’ He intended a full philharmonic sound. This is the American masterpiece, and I know we can do it the way it was intended to be done.”

The 1927 musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, “Show Boat,” rounds out the season. “Show Boat” was chosen in part, Ballam said, due to “economies of scale,” as “Ragtime,” “Porgy & Bess” and “Showboat” all call for a mixed, ethnic cast with many African-American actors. Ballam said all three shows have a common thread of prejudice and some include occasional offensive language that he hopes “will very soon be eliminated from our vocabulary.”

“It truly will be — by quite a stretch — our biggest season in history,” Ballam said. “And by that I mean it uses more resources. We usually have 300 people, and this year we have 360 on the payroll for 12 weeks. This season will launch us into our silver season.”