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Michael Ballam is ready to tackle Tevye for Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre

Published July 11, 2013 10:21 am

Preview • The festival founder got some surprising advice while preparing to play Tevye.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Logan • For his role as Tevye in Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre's production of "Fiddler on the Roof," Michael Ballam flew to New York and spent several days with the musical's lyricist, Sheldon Harnick.

Harnick mainly coached Ballam on vocal technique, but also offered immeasurable insight into the role of a Jewish father attempting to maintain his family's religious traditions.

"The things he wanted from me were quite unexpected," said Ballam, who doubles as general director of UFOMT.

Ballam had worked on about six Yiddish accents before spending time with Harnick, but the legendary lyricist didn't want him to use any of them. "He said, 'No, Tevye shouldn't have an accent. No one should have an accent. This is not just about the Jews. It's about everyone.' "

Similarly, Ballam said Harnick suggested that he change his makeup — which, on the website and catalog, features Ballam so transformed as be unrecognizable.

" 'I don't want that,' " Ballam recalled Harnick saying. " 'I want them to recognize you. I want them to realize it's you because the story is Tevye. I want to hear your take on Tevye. I don't want you to be Zero Mostel, or Topol, or any of those guys. I want it to be clear that it's you.' "

After their first session, Ballam was chatting with Harnick and said, " 'You must have been asked to do this a thousand times.' He said, 'Frankly, no,' which I find really amazing. It was so insightful. I just can't imagine why all the Tevyes in the world haven't sought his advice, because he essentially put the words in Tevye's mouth."

This story of family ties has a strong family connection for Ballam: Two of his daughters, Vanessa and Olivia, will play his stage daughters; Vanessa's husband, Stefan Espinosa, is cast as her onstage love interest.

Other offerings • "Fiddler" is one of two musicals being offered during this UFOMT season, which runs July 10 to Aug. 10. "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" is the other. In celebration of Wagner's and Verdi's 200th bicentennials, the UFO also will mount productions of "The Flying Dutchman" and "Otello."

Other concerts and activities, ranging from Italian cooking classes to backstage tours, round out the festival.

"Most of our audience — 80 percent — comes from someplace other than Cache County," Ballam said. "So they're not just coming for an evening after work to see a show and then go home and watch the news and go to bed; they're making a determination to make this a destination. So we feel an obligation that while they are here, we want to have more than just the shows to offer them."

Of the side offerings, a workshop production of "Rex" will be of particular interest. "Rex" is a musical about Henry VIII by Richard Rodgers, Harnick and Sherman Yellen that was produced in 1976, but didn't originally find success. (See accompanying story.)

Many years after Rodgers' death, Harnick and Yellen revisited the play and made substantial changes to it. After a successful reopening in Canada, "Rex" will be performed concert-style (without staging and costumes) in Logan and with an eye toward a new future.

"To be in on the ground floor of the rewrite and the rework of a Broadway play with an eye to taking it back to New York is exciting," said Gary Griffin, managing director of the festival. "The lyricist will be here and so will the author of the book, Sherman Yellen."

The classics • "The Flying Dutchman" will be the first Wagner opera presented in Logan, Ballam said.

"We've done concert sections of his operas, but we've never mounted one of his productions," he said. "Since it's his birthday, his bicentennial, and Wagner has never set foot into Cache County in the 200 years that have intervened since his birth, I thought it's high time to bring him here."

Soprano Elizabeth Kataria will sing the leading role of Senta. "Not only can she be heard through the large and thick orchestration, but what comes through is beautiful," Ballam said. "That's not always the case. She's absolutely splendid." The other two leads are Richard Zuch, whom Ballam describes as a "real Wagnerian bass," as Daland, and Utah favorite Kristopher Irmiter, in the title role.

Two of the leads in "Otello" will be coming from the Metropolitan Opera — Ian DeNolfo (Otello) and Jason Stearns (Iago). Carla Hanson, who sings Desdemona, will return after singing the role of Tosca last year.

The role of Desdemona, said Ballam, is particularly demanding because the soprano has to be able to sing a flamboyant, big-throated sound and also spin a very high, very fine thread of sound.

"For my personal tastes, 'Otello' is Verdi's strongest piece, and that's why we're doing it to celebrate his birthday," said Ballam. "It's the most dramatic, and it's just glorious if you have the right trio — Otello, Iago and Desdemona. They're very special kinds of voices."

As for "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," Ballam said that searching for the ideal cast members was the most challenging in his 21 years at UFOMT.

"When you're going to look for an Otello," he said, "the list isn't exhaustive. The role is so heroic and it takes such amazing vocal resources that you really only have a choice of maybe 20 who have sung it out there to the level that we would want to put on our stage."

With "Joseph," he said, "most anyone can sing the music. So people came out from the woodwork. I just did audition after audition after audition until I was convinced I had the right Joseph." Normally, Ballam said, he listens to a thousand singers every year, and from that group, he chooses about 60 to come to Logan for the summer.

Jonathan Hoover, a Broadway performer, got the part. Ballam said he felt that Hoover, plus the rest of the ensemble, would be able to present a fresh take on the musical. "It's the most performed work of Andrew Lloyd Webber," said Ballam. "I wanted to put it on the stage in a way that would be unique and wonderful."

features@sltrib.com —

Opera in Logan

Two musicals, two ambitious operas and more than 100 other activities take place during the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre season.

When • July 10 to Aug. 10.

Where • Ellen Eccles Theatre, 43 S. Main, Logan.

Tickets • 435-750-0300 or 800-262-0074 ext 3; www.utahfestival.org; or in person at the Dansante Building, 59 S. 100 West, Logan.






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