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A night at the (Utah Festival) opera

From Bizet to Gilbert & Sullivan, there’s something for everyone

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What do "Carmen," "Julius Caesar" and "The Mikado" have in common? They're all part of this year's Utah Festival Opera, which opens Thursday, July 13, and continues through Saturday, Aug. 5.

Even though Utah now has quite a few summer festivals, the seven-year-old Logan event is the only summer opera in the state. And thanks to the hard work and dedication of its founder and general director, Michael Ballam, the Utah Festival Opera has come a long way since its beginnings in the summer of 1993.

Last year, the company was ranked among the top 20 summer opera festivals in the world by Money Magazine. Others sharing top honors in this list were the Glyndebourne Festival, the Salzburg Festival and the Santa Fe Opera.

"Of the 106 (opera) companies listed in Opera America, we're the only one that started in the '90s that has succeeded," Ballam said with some well-deserved pride.

In an interview with the Deseret News, Ballam notes that this year things are going very well indeed, and that next year the company will be expanding its operations. "We keep growing each yea. And, as difficult as it's going to be for us, we're going to add another venue next year, and we'll be staging four mainstage productions.

"We're going to have two off-site venues in Cache Valley, and we're also planning to do a run-out —

where we take a show on the road — but we're not yet sure where.

"The whole idea is that you can see four operas in two days. People can come and OD on opera!"

The fact that people can see several operas in a very short space of time has contributed to the company's prosperity. "That appeals to people," Ballam said, "and it makes it easier for people to come to Logan. And in fact, 85 percent of our audience comes from a significant distance. We couldn't do it just with support from Cache County."

Another reason for the festival's success is that Ballam selects three highly diverse productions for each season. And one of these is always an operetta or a musical. This year it's Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Mikado." "The last time it played here was 10 years ago, but it has a long history here in Cache County. And ticket sales for it are going very well."

"The Mikado" will be directed by David Gately, whose most recent local engagement was as stage director for Utah Opera's immensely successful production of "Falstaff" last March.

"David is beloved here and in Salt Lake," Ballam said, explaining that Gately has directed several productions for Utah Festival Opera over the years.

Besides directing, Gately will also appear in the role of the Mikado. "He started in the business as a performer. But he found that he liked directing and went off in that direction."

Sometimes Ballam decides to present a specific opera because a certain singer will be available. That's the case with Handel's "Julius Caesar." "We're doing 'Julius Caesar' in part because Erie Mills could be with us at this time."

Today, Mills is almost as closely associated with the role of Cleopatra in Handel's opera as Beverly Sills was 25 years ago. " 'Julius Caesar' saved New York City Opera, and it launched Beverly Sills' career," Ballam said. "I was in high school when that work changed operatic history in America.

"I'm excited about doing 'Julius Caesar.' I've wanted to do it for a number of years, and we finally have the opportunity to stage it. (Our) production is brilliantly beautiful, and it's going to be historically accurate as well. We're going to have the orchestra onstage, and Gerald Steichen (the conductor), who is a wonderful keyboard player, will also play the harpsichord."

The festival opens with a version of Bizet's "Carmen" that many operagoers probably don't know very well. "We're doing the original 'opera comique' version (with spoken dialogue), which makes it much more theatrical," Ballam said. "Our production is as close as possible to what Bizet intended, except that we're doing it in English. But Bizet wanted 'Carmen' to be in the vernacular, so people could understand what was happening. We're using Sheldon Harrick's translation. Sheldon wrote 'Fiddler on the Roof,' and he's one of our board members."

And if this total immersion in opera should get to be too much, even for die-hard opera buffs, then the Logan festival can offer its patrons something in addition to music — specifically, the opportunity for enjoying the surrounding countryside between performances. As conductor and avid outdoorsman Robert Henderson points out, "The hiking is very good here."

The festival opens on Thursday, July 13, at 8 p.m. After that the three operas are performed in repertory Wednesday-Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., along with 2 p.m. matinees each Thursday and Saturday. All performances take place in the Ellen Eccles Theatre in downtown Logan.

Season series tickets range in price from $42-$108. Single tickets are priced from $17-$47. Both can be purchased in person at the Dansante Box Office, 59 S. 100 West, Logan, or by calling 1-800-262-0074 or 1-435-750-0300, ext. 106. Tickets are also available through all ArtTix outlets and online at www.tickets.com or www.arttix.org.

In addition to the operas, there will also be a couple of special performances. Musica Magnifica will feature the Utah Festival Opera orchestra, ensemble and soloists in selections from well-known operas, and this concert takes place on Friday, July 28, at 2 p.m. in the Ellen Eccles theatre. Tickets for this event cost $15-$35.

Opera a la Carte will present the company's young artists in operatic scenes and arias. The concert takes place Friday, Aug. 4, at 2 p.m. in the Ellen Eccles Theatre. Tickets are priced from $7-$18.

Two performances of "The Face on the Barroom Floor" by Henry Mollicone and John S. Bowman will be given in the Bluebird Restaurant, 19 N. Main, Logan, at 10:30 p.m. on Wednesday and Friday, July 26 and 28. After that, the mini-opera will be staged at the Opera House at the Festival of the American West, situated six miles south of Logan on Highway 89/91. Performances there take place Wednesday-Saturday, Aug. 2-5, at 11 a.m. Tickets aren't necessary, but there is a cover charge at the Bluebird Restaurant and an admission fee for the Festival of the American West.

For further information contact the Utah Festival Opera offices at 1-435-750-0300.

E-MAIL: ereichel@desnews.com