Since its first performance nine years ago, the Utah Festival Opera has seen a lot of changes. According to general director Michael Ballam, the biggest has been "growth, growth and growth."
"The season has grown," he said, "the audience has grown, the quality has grown, our financial stability has grown, our artistic vision has grown and our education programs have grown."
The subscription season, which starts Wednesday and runs through Aug. 4, features Rossini's "The Barber of Seville," Carlisle Floyd's "Susannah," Victor Herbert's "Naughty Marietta" and Rodgers & Hammerstein's "South Pacific." All performances will be held in the Ellen Eccles Theatre in Logan.
"It's going to be an exciting season," Ballam told the Deseret News.
The festival also features "Musica Magnifica," a special Pioneer Day presentation (one performance only), Mollicone's "The Face on the Barroom Floor" Aug. 1-4, production seminars, literary seminars and "informances," informal pre-performance discussions. Locations vary for these events.
There will also be one performance of "South Pacific" in Park City's Eccles Center on Tuesday, July 31.
Ballam explained that as patrons become increasingly national and international, the Utah Festival Opera has made accommodations to help make the sometimes lengthy trek worthwhile.
"There are opportunities to see five shows in two days," Ballam said. "We are dependent upon people making a major trek to come here. That's why we do repertory theater.
"Our vision artistically is rather eclectic. 'Opera' is a very big word for us — it stands for anything that has to do with music and drama, which isn't confined to the traditional spaghetti or sauerkraut operas, if you know what I mean. As you will note in our last nine seasons, we've had everything from premieres of American musical theater pieces to famous German operettas to grand opera."
The performers have to be versatile and energetic, since many of them play parts in several different productions, Ballam said. The company auditions about 1,000 singers a year, choosing artists who can handle both musical theater and opera. "We hire artists who are cross-over artists, and they're special. Not everybody can do both 'South Pacific' and 'The Barber of Seville.' That's quite a stretch."
Ballam said the lead performers are remarkable this year. For example, David Gustafson, singing the part of Alma Viva in "The Barber of Seville," was one of the reasons Ballam chose that particular opera.
"He has that Rossini capability to move his voice with the melismas and the runs that a Rossini tenor needs, but it's not one of those very light voices. He has a very strong, robust sound, which is so exciting for me to hear. I really think that this is a remarkable talent, and we wanted to have a chance to expose it."
Faith Esham, who will be singing the title role in Carlisle Floyd's "Susannah," was also specially selected for her role. Ballam said that Esham is a particular favorite of the composer for this role and was featured in a film made of this opera. Bill Parcher, another high visibility artist, will play Reverend Blitch.
"This work requires that kind of singing-actor. It's the story of Susannah and the Elders, an apocryphal biblical story, and it's going to make people commit to change their lives. It's a very profound drama — maybe a cross between the story of David and Bathsheba and Elmer Gantry, if you can picture that.
"It's a work that causes people to examine what choices do for us — how wrong choices bring some kind of payment. And that's what 'Susannah's' all about. The music is spectacular. I believe it's Floyd's supreme work. People are just going to be blown away by the majesty of the melodies."
In addition to looking forward, the Utah Festival Opera is also looking back, with "Naughty Marietta," an operetta that presented during the festival's first season. This time it has been refurbished, with enhanced production values.
"The last, the ever-popular 'South Pacific,' is going to round out the season," said Ballam. "Leslie Ann Hendricks plays the role that Mary Martin created. Leslie is a Broadway baby — she is not a crossover artist. She was born to sing Nellie Forbush.
"When push comes to shove, this musical's really got to be performed beautifully. And I'm not sure how often people have a chance to hear it sung by nationally acclaimed operatic singers in those roles — I'm talking about Lieutenant Cable and Emile de Becque. We're selling out a number of the performances already."