Logan’s hills are alive with the sound of opera (and musical theater)

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While most opera companies go dark through the summer months, Logan comes alive with the sound of music. Cue Julie Andrews. Back for its 19th season, and with a tweak in its name, the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre is in full swing at the magnificent Ellen Eccles Theatre in Logan. Founding general director Michael Ballam takes advantage of the nationwide lull in theater, attracting high-caliber artists hungry for work, or hungry for the stage. He also attracts an audience from around the country. During an “informance,” a half-hour talk before each show that Ballam offers up personally, Ballam often asks the audience to raise their hand to show where they are from. Fully half of the audience is generally not from the state.

True to form, this year’s festival brings the staples to an appreciative audience. I’m embarrassed to say that I had yet to see South Pacific or Don Giovanni — I know! Both, along with Oliver!, are shows everyone has seen. Luckily I can now add those shows to my “been there, done that, bought the Aggie ice cream” list.

The festival is also showing Boris Gudunov, rarely produced because of the size of its cast and the difficulty of mastering a Russian accent.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, for those like me who may not have yet seen it, is a love story set on an island during World War II. It broaches the topics of racism and interracial dating — bold moves for a show written in 1949 — in a comedic and approachable way. Its songs are widely recognizable — “I’m Gonna Wash That Man RIght Out of My Hair,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy,” and a favorite of men’s choirs everywhere, “There is Nothing Like a Dame.”

The show was Molly Mustonen’s the second she walked out on stage. Playing the lead character, nurse Nellie Forbush, she is a believable naive Arkansas girl desperately in love-at-first-sight with French plantation owner Emile de Becque, played by baritone Branch Field. Her enthusiasm and voice brought a warmth to the theater and enthralled the audience. Field’s rich voice is like butter and paired beautifully with duets with Forbush. Mark Womack was a close second in captivating the audience, though his character, Lt. Joseph Cable, is more supportive than lead. His rendition of “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” seemed heartfelt and poignant.

Two other stand-outs were Jeanette Blakeney as sassy and flirtatious Bloody Mary and Stephanos Tsirakoglou as the entreprenurial seabee Luther Billis. Both provided comic relief without upstaging the show.

Part of the fun of the festival is that you see actors play wildly different characters in different shows. The difference between Womack’s portrayal of the lieutenant in South Pacific and the title character in Don Giovanni is awe-inspiring. It actually took me well into the show to realize he was the same actor. He played the philandering character with an arrogance and snark that seemingly infused his own personality with that written by Lorenzo Da Ponte.

Tsirakoglou came back on stage as Giovanni’s servant, once again providing comic relief to a show about rape, murder and infidelity.

The beautiful Eleni Calenos, playing the heartbroken and conflicted Donna Elvira, bounced her voice off the walls, drawing mid-show “bravas.”

The ending was grand theater that I will leave you to experience.

I was a little worried about the production of Oliver! when 15 boys of various ages belted a blasty and pitchy opening “Food Glorious Food,” but then I thought it may have been by design, as that is how young boys are.

Eleven-year-old Jace Salcido, who probably weighs 65 pounds soaking wet, plays Oliver and has a surprisingly solid boy soprano voice for a first-time actor. Fellow Cache Valley student Cameron Conrad held his own portraying the Artful Dodger.

Ballam can’t resist the draw of the stage, but usually plays minor ensemble roles. This year he was front and center as Fagin. In an amazing transformation that is a credit to the festival’s costume (Jean-Louise England, Patti Worley Johnson) and makeup team (Susan Sittko Schaefer), Fagin could walk down Main Street Logan without people recognizing Ballam’s true identity. His performance was flawless. Trust me, I was looking for flaws. His stature, movement and voice were a believable elderly Jewish street criminal.

In all shows I’ve seen at the festival over the years, perhaps I’m most impressed with the staging and the orchestra. Transforming a stage for four, full productions, as well as some side attractions, must be an engineering feat in itself. There is little cheating going on in these shows. The sets are mammoth, well executed and genius in their versatility.

I was glad to see returning conductors Barbara Day Turner (San Jose Chamber Orchestra) and Karen Keltner (San Diego Opera) leading an orchestra from around the country, most of whom return each year for the festival.

If you are hungry for lyric theater and the thought of seeing four productions in a weekend sets your heart pumping, I would suggest you get onto the festival’s website and order tickets now. The productions I viewed were completely sold out. The festival runs through Aug. 6 with shows running Thursday through Saturday and special events through the rest of the week.

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Michael Aaron

Michael Aaron is the editor and publisher of QSaltLake. He has been active in Utah's gay and lesbian community since the early 80s and published two publications then and in the 90s.

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