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LOGAN MAN HAS HAD A TRILLING LIFE IN THE OPERA

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When Michael Ballam was about 16 years old, he was driving down Main Street in his hometown of Logan, past the Capitol Theatre, when "I got this flash that this building needed some help and that some day my destiny would be linked to this theater."

That was more than 20 years ago - and things are starting to come full-circle.

In the meantime, he attended Utah State University, graduating in 1972, then went to Indiana University ("For an opera education, that's the only place to go"), where he earned his master's and doctorate degree in music.

In the two decades since he left Cache Valley for the bright lights of New York City, Ballam has assembled a portfolio of performances and recitals on some of the grandest of the grand opera stages of the world _ for the Chicago Lyric Opera in Orchestra Hall, the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, the Chandler Pavilion of the Los Angeles Music Center, Kennedy Center.

He didn't start out wanting to be an opera singer. Back when he was a student at Sky View High School in Cache Valley, he enjoyed performing in musical comedies. His dream at that time was to become the next Gene Kelly.

"I wanted to tap dance my way through life," he said.

At the age of 17, he took his life savings of $60 and bought a bus ticket to San Francisco, where he sat in the last row of the balcony of the War Memorial Opera House and saw a production of "Tristan und Isolde."

"I was completely hooked," he said. "I had never seen so many instruments, then I heard this tenor voice and I was just astonished and I thought, `I want to do this.' Ten years later to the month, I sang `Tristan und Isolde' on the stage of that same opera house."

In the dog-eat-dog world of opera and theater, Ballam's steady rise came fairly fast and smooth.

He never had to wait on tables. The day he got his degree from IU he had a job. Beverly Sills' agent sent Ballam to audition for a role in Chicago and he got the job, although things were a little difficult for several months because they hire a year in advance.

The first thing Ballam and his wife, Laurie, did was move to New York City.

As an opera performer, "if your Zip Code isn't 100something _ in other words, Manhattan _ they don't take you seriously, which is ridiculous. Look at Glade (Peterson of Utah Opera in Salt Lake city). He has to hold his auditions in New York City."

After moving to New York, Laurie Ballam helped out by designing children's clothing until the opera contracts started coming.

And they did.

"I remember going out on the stage of the Chicago Lyric Opera for the first time and seeing this enormous auditorium on opening night. Downstairs, the seats were going for $250. I was thinking, `There's $500,000 in ticket prices sitting here tonight and what am I doing here singing?' Now, that can do one of two things to you. It can scare you to death or it can make you think `My goodness, I must be important.' I did the former, not the latter. I felt very humbled by it. Many of my colleagues started renting fur coats and smoking big cigars and thinking they were really something, but I kept thinking how lucky I was to be part of something this big.

"That set me apart as being unusual, I guess, but that was the only way I could survive. It can eat you alive. You can eat you alive!"

Since making his opera debut, the Logan-born tenor has sung all over the world _ Berlin, London, Russia _ as well as opera roles and recitals throughout the United States.

"To be an opera singer today means you live out of a suitcase, but it gets old very fast," said Ballam.

"I did not see my daughter, Vanessa, learn to ride a bike. I did not see my son, Christopher, go to school the first time. Birthdays and baptisms, Thanksgivings and even some Christmases get missed, and a long-distance telephone call is not the same thing," he commented.

A few years ago, the Ballams began rethinking the necessity of residing in New York City.

"When Christopher started school, we thought, `Now, wait a minute. Is this really where we want our children to attend school?' We loved New York, but the environment is out of control. There are museums and wonderful things, but once you let your children out of sight, you have absolutely no input," he noted.

Michael and Laurie Ballam decided that since he was on the road all the time anyway _ and there's a perfecly fine international airport in Salt Lake City, and since he was always flying off to San Francisco or Paris or Chicago or London _ he could just as well do it from Logan.

Although having a Manhattan zip code was an important factor while he was getting his career established, his mailing address no longer makes much difference.

"Early on, no matter what the role was, no matter what the fee was, no matter where it was or whether you missed your child's baptism, you said `Yes.' If you didn't say `Yes' you wouldn't be able to survive," he said.

"Fortunately, I'm no longer in that position. I only say `yes' to those things that delight me, for companies with which I have an affinity. There are many great companies in the country that, frankly, I don't want to sing there again because the artistic level there is secondary. In fact, I don't really have to sing at all, which make it all the more fun because now I'm doing it out of love, rather than necessity."

Just this past week, Ballam sung in "The Merry Widow" with Joan Sutherland in Dallas, and he's contracted to sing "Dialogues of the Carmelites" in San Diego after the first of the year.

"I'm still very much involved," he said, "but I do it for fun now."

Of course, even a semiretired opera singer who sings "just for fun" still has bills to pay and a family to support.

Since leaving New York for the more laid-back life in Cache Valley, Ballam has hired on as a professor in the music department at USU. He also coaches voice privately, with students coming from as far away as Idaho Falls and Provo for the opportunity of learning from a professional who's lived and worked in New York City.

And he's busily involved, spearheading the effort to return the Capitol Theater to its former elegance as a performing arts center.

In June of 1988, he starred in the USU Opera Theatre's production of Puccini's "Gianni Schicchi," the first live production in the theater in a quarter of a century. In addition to the one-act comic opera, Ballam wrote and produced a short musical sketch about the cultural history Cache Valley.

Among the treasures in the venerable old theater, Ballam discovered, were about 20 backdrops that had been hanging up in the overhead fly space for the past 60 years. One of them was an olio depicting the businesses along Main Street in Logan during the early 1920s.

"We flew it down and the crowd went nuts," he said.

The backdrops are in mint condition and they're really priceless _ much like the theater that Ballam is working to preserve as part of Logan's cultural heritage.