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Michael Ballam: Utah tenor's career comes full circle

Michael Ballam discovers home is where his heart is

He has sung Puccini and Wagner in the great concert halls of the world. He has sung at the Met, the White House, the Kennedy Center and the Vatican. He has sung with Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Birgit Nilsson and Joan Sutherland. But today Michael Ballam is appearing live! — at the Sunshine Terrace Rest Home in Logan, Utah.

Accompanied by his wife Laurie, four of his six children and the family dog, Tennessee, Ballam shakes hands with the residents and makes introductions and moves a woman in a wheelchair to give her a better view of the show.

"We've been coming here for years," he tells the gathering of about 60. "It's one of the highlights of the Christmas season for me."

Ballam plays the piano as he sings Christmas carols, either solos or duets with family members, for more than a half-hour, following a program he had printed for the occasion. Then come requests.

"That's my favorite thing about Michael," says Laurie. "He's done lots of dramatic things in his life with opera, but what touches me the most is that he is completely unselfish with people in need."

It is for such moments as this that Ballam returned to his roots and his hometown, although he would tell you it was an act of God that got him here. He literally lost his voice, and then found it again in hospitals and rest homes around the country.

A few years ago The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints actually created a position just for him: an at-large music missionary — a roving ambassador of goodwill, with a tenor voice.

"When I'm feeling low, it evaporates when I go in an intensive-care unit and sing for people for an afternoon," he says. "It's wonderful therapy. . . . There's something about singing for someone at their bedside."

Between rehearsals in strange cities, he might show up unannounced at a hospital, looking for someone to warm with his singing. After introducing himself to a patient, he asks if there is a song he would like to hear, and then he sings to an audience of one. With a repertoire of thousands of songs stored in his memory, he knows almost all requests, and if he doesn't, he'll learn it and come back the next day to perform it.

"I didn't make it back for one in time, so I sang it at his funeral," he says.

Once he visited a man in a rest home who nurses warned him was surly and rambunctious. The singer asked the man about his background and learned he was from Germany. Then Ballam belted out the man's favorite songs — in German — and the man sang along with him.

He once visited an elderly lady in a rest home who was suffering from Alzheimer's. She was incoherent and remote most of the time, but when Ballam showed up to sing for her she was talkative and animated. And when he was gone she returned to her lost world.

"I've seen people absolutely speak and sing for the first time in years," says Laurie.

"It can't be just any music, it has to be something so strong on their hard drive, something meaningful to them," Ballam explains. "It's the music that brings them out of it, not me."

"He's more than an entertainer," says President Thomas S. Monson of the LDS Church's First Presidency. "He's got a heart of gold. He does it quietly. He doesn't make a show of it. He believes in music and goodness."

Ballam gave President Monson the hospital-room concert a few years ago when the latter was hospitalized during the Christmas season, and later did the same for President Monson's wife, Frances.

"It was beautiful," says President Monson. "And he left a tape with his music on it that we played for her."

Ballam's life is music. It colors every facet of his life, right down to his license plate: TENOR. The first thing he does each morning at 5:30 sharp is watch opera on video as he works out on the treadmill. He calls the piano his "best friend" and says, "If I can't get my hands on a keyboard fairly regularly I'd go crazy."

For a decade the 50-year-old Ballam indulged his passion as a full-time opera singer, performing throughout the United States and Europe — San Francisco, New York, Washington, Boston, London, Paris, Florence, Copenhagen, Yalta, Russia, Odessa, Istanbul, plus a command performance for the pope in the Vatican.

Ballam has recorded 47 albums (including a Christmas album released this month), given more than 600 performances and played more than 70 major roles. He was Hoffmann in the "Tales of Hoffmann," Don Jose in "Carmen," the Duke in "Rigoletto," Rodolfo in "La Boheme," Pinkerton in "Madame Butterfly" and the Coyote in "Coyote Tales."

But since returning to Logan some 15 years ago, his singing career has gradually given way to a wider variety of things. He seems to show up everywhere — videos, CDs, TV, singing at ground zero in New York, singing at LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley's 90th birthday, singing in hospitals and prisons, doing speaking engagements, flying around the country to perform or to carry out some other errand in the name of music.

"He never seems to wind down," says Ballam's friend and admirer, Sen. Orrin Hatch.

Besides all of the above, he teaches several classes in the music department at Utah State University and serves as the driving force behind the Utah Festival Opera Company, which he founded in 1993 after converting a rundown, 70-year-old Logan theater into a world-class opera and arts palace.

For opera buffs, discovering the UFOC in Logan (population 35,000) is like finding Yankee Stadium in La Verkin. Money Magazine ranked the UFOC among the top 20 summer opera festivals in the world. It is hailed for the quality of its facilities and its productions. More than 20,000 people watched performances at the UFOC last year, most of them from out of state and beyond.

Singers, artists, directors and fans have come from Jerusalem, Australia, Canada, Vienna, Malaysia, Poland, Russia and Serbia to see shows.

The UFOC, Ballam's biggest passion these days, has become the perfect legacy of a man has been obsessed with music, theater, opera and art since he was a boy. But Ballam might still be a full-time performer and there would be no UFOC if fate or providence hadn't lent a hand.

"Before he was a year old, we knew he loved music," says Ballam's mother, Marianne. "He kept wanting to hear it, and as soon as he could talk he would sing."

Ballam's first stage was the top of a table. He sang for a church group at the age of 2 and left them weeping. He was 5 when his grandmother placed him atop another table to sing for her bed-ridden sister in a rest home.

"My grandmother brought her gifts, but I had nothing," he says. "So I sang for her. I remember singing and seeing her weep and smile at the same time. That's confusing to a 5-year-old, because one is joy and one is sadness. But I sensed it was good and right, and I've been pursuing that ever since."

In his mind, Ballam's passion for music came with a cost of isolation. While his peers were listening to the Beatles, he was listening to Sinatra, Crosby, Jane Froman, Beethoven, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein. He didn't understand pop music — he just didn't get it. She loves you yeah, yeah, yeah? His friends' heroes were the Stones and Mickey Mantle; Ballam's hero was Beethoven.

In his free time he read biographies of composers and mail-ordered opera scores from the local music store. After reading Beethoven's biography in junior high, he bought the nine symphonies of the great composer and listened to them one by one. His love for music grew to include all classical music and opera.

"The first time I heard 'Madame Butterfly' my heart wouldn't stop pounding," he recalls. "I'd play the records and watch the score and imagine what it would look like on stage."

He began taking piano lessons at 6 and voice lessons at 11, the latter because his mother was afraid he would injure his voice with his frequent singing in local productions.

"I thought he was so good that he would go right to the top," says Marianne. "In high school and junior high he was in everything (productions) and was always memorizing and practicing and going to lessons."

But he had little with which to relate to his peers. Instead of going to high school football games on the weekend, he stayed home and listened to symphonies on the record player with his grandmother. While his friends played ball after school, Ballam played the piano. Instead of watching TV, he would write a musical and perform it for whoever would listen to a one-man show.

"I had this burning desire to explore music," he recalls. "There was nobody else who had that passion for it. So you isolate yourself. The same thing happens I suspect to a boy who wants to be a figure skater. I was alone on weekend nights. I came to know Mister Beethoven when my parents were at football games. It wasn't like I didn't like football, but I figured in those three hours I could listen to a whole opera."

"He was always so focused on what he wanted to do with his life," says Laurie Ballam, the singer's wife and high school sweetheart.

Ballam, the youngest of three boys, considered himself the oddball even in his own family. His father Grant played basketball for a state championship team in high school and remains an active athlete. His brothers, both good singers themselves, were good high school athletes. Ballam recalls his father taking him into the yard to play catch, but he was nearsighted and uninterested.

"My father was a prince about it," he says. "He was so supportive, paying for all my music and voice lessons. He was great."

Ballam was in eighth grade at South Cache Junior High when a counselor handed him a list of careers and told him to pick the one he wanted to pursue. After looking it over, Ballam said he told the counselor, "What I want to be isn't on the list."

"Well, what do you want to be?" the counselor asked.

"An opera singer."

"You can't. Find something on the list you want to be."

"There isn't anything."

Ballam had never seen an opera at this point. His only exposure to one was the record player, but that was enough. During his senior year of high school, Ballam emptied his savings account of $60 and signed up with a Utah State University tour group that consisted of "little old ladies" traveling to San Francisco to see art galleries, musicals and plays. Ballam was the only one of the group who bought tickets to see his first live opera. He got the last seat to see Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde."

"It's the longest, loudest, biggest opera ever written," says Ballam. "It was like reading for your first book 'War and Peace.' It's 3 1/2 hours long."

Ballam rented a tuxedo for the occasion and, with no money for a cab, walked a half hour to the War Memorial Opera House through some of the worst parts of the city. He arrived before the theater opened its doors and was the first person to be admitted. Sitting in the last seat at the top of the balcony, he soaked it all in, the orchestra pit, the stage, the people.

"The curtain went up and the orchestra plays that incredible prelude," he says. "Then this tenor voice came zinging out of the dark and hit me right here (he points to his forehead). There were no mikes, just one guy standing there on a stage filling the air with his voice. I swear I lifted right out of that seat. I turned to the lady sitting next to me and said, 'I'm going to do that some day.' She patted me on the knee and said, 'That's nice.' "

Ballam forged an opera career by sheer force of will and a relentless work ethic. He graduated from Utah State in just three years because he was in a hurry to pursue his opera studies. That meant carrying such a heavy classload that he had to get special permission each semester from the dean. He continued his maniacal pace while doing graduate studies at Indiana University, the country's premier opera school. He'd sing until he got hoarse, then he'd play piano, and when his voice recovered, he'd sing some more. He spent eight hours a day just practicing his music.

When Ballam discovered the vast collection of opera music in the university's record library, he was like an addict on a binge. He'd show up early Saturday morning and lose himself in music. He listened to all 27 of Verdi's operas. He listened to Puccini and Mozart and Wagner. He listened to the spaghetti operas. At midnight the librarian would have to kick him out of the library.

"I had some catching up to do," he explains. "Some of my colleagues had grown up in New York and had been to the Met and had grown up with this music. Coming from Utah, I was way behind. But I caught up. It was important to know what was out there."

Before his 25th birthday, he completed his master's degree and doctorate in music in just four years — the previous school record was eight — while also singing 14 major roles in school and professional productions. When the master's committee informed Ballam he had passed oral exams for his master's degree, Ballam told them thanks, then handed them his doctoral dissertation, much to the dismay of the professors.

"I never slept," says Ballam. "I was driven beyond words."

"What he did was unbelievable," says Vera Scammon, his professor/mentor at IU. "He moves mountains, that guy."

Ballam never had to wait on tables; he found work. He remembers one big audition in Chicago early in his career: "It was a new opera that was difficult," he says. "You had to have relative pitch — you had to pick the note out of the music. Not everyone was willing to invest the time to learn it. Then when I got to the audition, the accompaniest couldn't play it. I said, 'I can play it.' They said, 'And sing it at the same time?' I said, 'Yes.' "

He got the job and stayed in Chicago eight months, and, just like that, his professional career was born.

Later, almost exactly 10 years after the little old lady had patted his knee in the War Memorial Opera House and said "That's nice," he appeared as the same tenor voice on the same stage and in the same production he had watched from the balcony as a teenager, just as he had vowed.

As a teenager, Ballam yearned to have someone who felt what he felt about music, but how many teenagers can connect with "Madame Butterfly"? Once, he brought a steady girlfriend to the house and played the last 30 minutes of "Madame Butterfly" for her, watching her face carefully for a reaction.

"She was completely unmoved by it," he says. "She kind of made a joke about it at the end. I thought she can't be my girlfriend anymore. If she doesn't catch the magic of this, I'm doomed. I was very frustrated. I couldn't find anyone who would understand why it was important. It was like that quote from the "Music Man." I wanted to find someone you don't have to explain why Beethoven is great. There wasn't anyone like that. I knew if I was going to marry someone, they had to understand."

"Madame Butterfly" became a test for girlfriends. Eventually, he gave the test to Laurie Israelsen, another piano student. He gave her the recording and the score — wrapped as a gift. "I want to share something with you that means a great deal to me," he told her, and as they listened to part of it together she was moved to tears and a romance was born.

"I thought it was the most romantic gift anyone had given to me," she recalls. "I memorized the whole opera. I listened to it night and day."

They were married five years later while attending Utah State. They have six children — Christopher, 25; Vanessa (the 1999 Miss Utah who performs with her father), 22; Nick, 20; Ester, 13; Olivia, 11; and Ben, 9.

Family life and marriage were strained by a career that took Ballam on the road about half of each year. It was compounded by the needs of a large family, not to mention the special needs of Ben, who was born with spina bifida.

"There were years when I saw Michael a month out of the year," says Laurie.

They tried to compensate for the absences. Michael and Laurie exchanged journals through the mail. Ballam recorded lullabies and stories to play for his children. When the kids were old enough, he took them on the road with him one at a time, and during the summer the family traveled with him.

Laurie and the kids eventually moved to Logan in 1981, but Michael continued to live in New York or wherever there was a show. He lived in a city for six weeks, reintroduced himself to the family and flew off again to another production.

"I remember a bad night after a recital at the Kennedy Center," he says. "The crowd enjoyed the performance so much that security people had to take me to a car. I drove home to my apartment in Alexandria, and I laid there and just sobbed because I had no one there to share it with. I'm like anyone; my head is turned by applause. But it's shallow. It's not love. They don't know me. It was Christmastime. My children and wife were somewhere else."

Ballam might have gone on like this indefinitely, but the one thing that could stop him finally happened.

He had just flown from Alaska to Venezuela along with the rest of the cast for a production of "La Traviata," and Ballam began to lose his voice. "I felt something in my throat that I knew wasn't right. I made it through my next performance, but I started to panic." By the time he returned to New York, his voice was gone. At times, he had to write notes to communicate.

For eight months he sought the opinion of doctors around the country. Some thought he would never sing again; some thought he was dying; some wanted to do exploratory surgery; they all believed he had an infection.

Unable to sing for more than a year, he moved to Logan to be close to family and to consult doctors. His LDS ward eventually held a fast and a prayer meeting in his behalf, "the likes of which I have never seen. It was then I knew what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to give my talents back to the Lord. It was like Abraham's Mt. Moriah. You give up the thing that means the most to you."

A short time later, doctors discovered the source of his problem was a bone infection in his sinuses that was leaking down his throat and, in effect, cauterizing the vocal cords. With treatment, his voice returned "stronger and bigger and richer than it had been before. After that, I told the Lord, 'Whatever it is you want me to do, let me know.' "

For years his grandfather had been urging him to use his voice to help people, and now he saw a way, through hospitals and rest homes and, finally, the UFOC.

Within days after his voice was restored he heard of plans to raze the old Capitol Theater in Logan. Ballam saw it as his new calling in life.

He talked the theater's owner into donating the place to the city and began to restore it. Wielding the clout of some of his big-time opera connections, not to mention a huge donation from philanthropist Helen Eccles, he raised $6.5 million and converted the old theater into the home of the Utah Festival Opera.

Today the Utah Festival Opera Company includes facilities for ballet, art, children's theater, poetry, sculpture and of course, opera. During the summer season, the UFOC does four operas simultaneously, reasoning that no one would travel to Logan to see one opera. The UFOC is becoming to Logan what the Shakespearean Festival is to Cedar City.

"If I took you to the Helen Eccles Theater (the opera facility) blindfolded and then took off your blindfold, you'd say you were in London or Paris or New York," says Larry Miller, a fan and financial supporter of the UFOC. "You'd never guess it was in Logan, Utah."

The UFOC also reaches beyond its own theater. In the off-season, it provides a free service to some 200 Utah schools to help kids write their own operas. The children write the words and music and design the costumes and sets. The process begins with the children singing their opera; a UFOC specialist records it, then prints a score and a CD and sends it back to the school to use for rehearsals. The children perform their operas at the UFOC in April.

So far, they have produced 90 original operas by school children, with a total audience of 8,000.

"Every kid in this state needs to see this," says Ballam. "They need to see heroes in other areas besides sports. Not everyone can be a Karl Malone. We're doing it for the right reasons. We want to influence children and make the world a better place. We're not as interested in entertaining as we are edifying. We want them to leave the theater as better people."

To keep the UFOC in business, Ballam must raise more than $2 million each year and serve as talent scout. Just in the past month alone he has auditioned singers in Lincoln, Neb.; Lawrence, Kan.; Lexington, Ken.; Bloomington, Ind.; Boston, New York and Chicago. He listens to more than 1,000 auditions a year and has downloaded more than 4,500 of them into his laptop computer.

"He is without peer when it comes to arts in Utah," says Hatch. "He is a Utah treasure. I can't say enough good about him. If Michael Ballam ever needs anything from me, I'm going to be there for him."

Looking back on it all now, Laurie says the temporary loss of Ballam's voice "turned out to be a blessing. He needed to be here. To do concerts for the church. For the UFOC. To sing in hospitals. And his kids needed him here."

Ballam has come full circle; he is, in essence, again singing to those in need from the top of a table. Says Laurie, "He told me once that if he could be remembered for just one thing and have it put on his headstone, it would be 'He was a kind man.' "