Emily Buckley, editor in chief

Entering its 32nd performing season, Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre (UFOMT) is a cornerstone of Cache Valley’s Arts community. However, the breadth and depth of what the organization offers are not as well known or may be overlooked by some locals. Once you take a moment to take it all in, it is nothing short of magical.

“Magical is a word we hear a lot when people reference UFOMT,” Vanessa Ballam, daughter of UFOMT’s founding general director Michael Ballam, and the organization’s education director and associate artistic director, said. 

In short, UFOMT is a professional performing company that produces six fully staged works with orchestra and repertory every July and August at the Utah Theatre and Ellen Eccles Theatre. In long, it is a true Arts festival that opens a window to another world for locals who experience Broadway- and Metropolitan Opera-quality entertainment in our small mountain town and patrons who come from afar to recognize the world-class Art that comes alive here each summer. 

“Professional artists come to this place they never knew existed and fall in love with the community and landscape,” Stefan Espinoza, UFOMT Conservatory director and artistic associate, said. “They are here for a minute and never forget.” 

The Festival includes much more than the six mainstage operas and musicals. It also boasts concerts by UFOMT pianists, the American Festival Chorus and UFOMT soloists, the Michael Ballam Vocal Competition, and new this year: Galaxy of Stars, where UFOMT’s most talented artists from the last 32 years will return to perform an array of great operas and arias.

Add to it all an Academy where patrons can get an in-depth understanding and a backstage look at the performing arts, from lectures by Dr. Michael Ballam himself to presentations by directors, choreographers, and even wig and makeup artists. 

The Festival also offers young students of the Arts a week-long intensive called Broadway Bound, where they work with the professionals visiting Cache Valley for the summer. 

“We work the students very hard, and then they get to see the performers — their teachers — on stage. I feel like it is really life-changing,” Vanessa said.

A unique aspect of UFOMT is that it produces both opera and musical theatre: Opera and musical theatre stars come together, share the stage, learn from each other, and grow together.

“We are the only company of this sort that treats musical theatre and opera at the same level of respect,” Michael said. He explained that the Festival provides a special opportunity for opera lovers to experience musical theatre and for musical theatre fans to whet their appetites and become familiar with opera. 

Last season’s UFOMT included Verdi’s opera Aida and Elton John’s version with just that mission in mind. 

“It was a great way to experience both,” Stefan said. “The programming and company are designed to make opera as accessible as musical theatre and musical theatre as grand as opera.” 

UFOMT History 

Michael married his high school sweetheart, Laurie. They have six
children, who Michael says are all musicians. Four of them have appeared on the UFOMT stage, and five of his grandchildren have also performed with the UFOMT.

Michael Ballam knew by age 5 that he wanted to spend his life telling stories by singing. He saw his first opera at age 15 and determined he wanted to tell stories by doing nothing but singing. He had his sights set on becoming an opera star. He earned his undergraduate education at Utah State University before attending Indiana University to earn his master’s and doctorate degrees before heading to New York City. 

“Fortunately, they liked me!” he said. 

Michael’s early career took him to opera houses around the world. “I grew up watching him perform worldwide,” Vanessa said. “We would go wherever the work was. So, I watched him rehearse and perform, and I knew from a very young age that is what I wanted to be part of, too.” 

In 1987, Michael returned home to Logan after falling ill while performing in Venezuela. As fate would have it, that was the same year the Capitol Theatre (today’s Ellen Eccles) was purchased and offered for renovation. Michael spearheaded the $6.5 million effort. “The magnificent building was originally an opera house, built in 1923,” Michael said. “It had fallen into great disrepair. The last live performance, Carmen, had been in 1958. We had to save her and bring live theatre back to her,” Michael said. 

Utah Festival Opera’s first season was in 1993. Michael calls it his most memorable. “We had extraordinary audiences — people wanted to see if we could pull it off,” Michael said. “I had a lot of favors to draw on, which allowed us to bring in extraordinary artists. It was really amazing. I was worn out, though, and I determined I would never do it again. Then, I went backstage and watched the second act of La Bohème and saw the children running around singing in Italian, and I thought, ‘This is important; they would have never known Puccini existed, and they are here singing In Italian.’ I thought I’d try it again, and every year since, we say, ‘One more time!’”

Michael says the legacy he hopes to leave is one of nobility. “We are committed to elevating lives through ennobling artistic experiences. I hope that is what I am remembered for.”

Vanessa adds, “We feel very lucky to do something we love in a community we love.”

 

Education

Husband and wife Stefan Espinoza and Vanessa Ballam have been running UFOMT’s education program for the last 15 years. They also star in many of the summer main stage productions.

UFOMT’s education program began with a program called Opera by Children, which Michael Ballam established in 1997. This program engages K-12 students in creating original operas and songs. The curriculum and resources are free to teachers across the state. 

The education program is now directed by Vanessa Ballam, who grew up loving the Arts and participating in all that Cache Valley had to offer at the time, including the Unicorn Theatre and Cache Valley Civic Ballet. She went on to earn her MFA at Indiana University and pursue her professional performance career. She met her husband, Stefan Espinoza, while they were both working as resident artists at PCPA Theatrefest in California. Stefan earned his MFA from the University of Houston. 

Vanessa created the Festival’s Youth Conservatory 15 years ago. The Conservatory is designed as a skills training program for young performing artists. The kids can then incorporate those skills into other venues, like high school theatre programs. 

“The simple idea behind the Conservatory is that we have access to professional performers through the professional arts organization both in the summer and sometimes year-round,” Stefan, who currently directs the Conservatory, said. “We have so many hungry young performers, and the first thing on any school budget chopping block is the Arts — and bless the high school teachers in this valley for doing incredible things with nothing. Our mission is to support them, essentially.”

They also host the Utah High School Musical Theatre Awards (UHSMTA each year, which could be compared to the Tony Awards for high school theatre programs in the state of Utah. This year, 56 productions were entered.

“We do give out scholarships and prizes at UHSMTA, but the most exciting thing for me is watching these young people come together and create art together,” Vanessa said through tears. “We’re biased, but we feel that the talent per capita in Utah is probably stronger than anywhere else in the nation. We have this professional training from our careers and are happy to be able to bring it back to this community. There are so many talented youth here who are hungry for it.”

UFOMT 2024 SEASON

With special permission from Mr. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s office, UFOMT will perform Cats, the longest-running musical in Broadway history but new to UFOMT. The production will include 18 Broadway dancers. 

To make great use of these amazing dancers, other mainstage shows include the dance-heavy Anything Goes! and the ever-loved quintessential musical Guys and Dolls, starring Vanessa Ballam and Stefan Espinoza. 

Vanessa and Stefan will also reprise roles from 2011 as Audrey and Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors. 

The final two mainstage productions include a double-bill opera of Giacomo Puccini’s comedic Gianni Schicchi (starring Michael Ballam in the title role) and the sequel Buoso’s Ghost. 

Tickets are available at utahfestival.org

FREE TICKETS are available for K-12 students and teachers from across the state. Visit utahfestival.org/student-teacher-free-tickets/ to request your tickets.