Sunday, August 9, 2009

Titipu and the Devil


Last Friday Trillium and I left Orem for parts northern, specifically the lovely little valley of Logan, Utah. We have visited a couple of times before, usually in connection with some sort of activity that happened to be scheduled there. Several generations back, however, portions of my family used to spend vast amounts of time there, primarily because that is where they had their homes. Portions of the valley are named after the portions of my family who themselves were blessed with the nominative gift. These are beautiful little communities; clean, well-kept, and apparently filled with cheerful, well-adjusted, human beings. One wonders why other portions of my family moved elsewhere.

Our jaunt to Logan was part of the weekend celebration of Trillium's birthday, a chance to get away from the "everyday" into the "once-in-a-while". We stayed in Providence, which was not named after my family, in a bed and breakfast called the "Providence Inn". Everything happened just as the proprietors said it would during the two days we were there, so I am somewhat encouraged about future forays. There is no reason for me to reveal the number of birthdays Trillium has experienced; she would rather not be reminded. In fact, after today's celebration she said to me, "We need not do this again". She meant, I assume, the lighting of the candle and the singing of the hymn, and not the trip to Logan.

Trillium has always loved opera. Early in our marriage, I discovered that buying LPs of works by Belleni and Verdi for her brought about extraordinary expressions of gratitude. "La Traviatta" is one of her favorites. With all of this in mind, in an attempt to do something wonderful, I made arrangements for us to attend the Utah Festival of Opera that has been held in Logan for these past 17 years. Several operas are performed during the months of July and August. During this season, the Company put on "Camelot", "Carmen", "Cavalleria Rusticana", "Pagliacci", and "The Mikado". I chose to take my wife to this last, to the penultimate performance.

"The Mikado" was the ninth collaboration of Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert of a total of fourteen. It opened on the 14th of March 1885 at the Savoy Theatre in London. It ran for 672 performances, the second longest run for a musical production up until that time. By the end of 1885 there were over 150 companies performing "The Mikado" all over Europe and America. The opera has enjoyed immense continuing popularity during the past 125 years. Of all of the songs performed in the production, three have reached iconic status: "Willow, tit-willow" sung by the tailor Koko; "Behold, the Lord High Executioner", sung by Koko and the men in the chorus; and "Three little maids from school are we", sung by Yum-yum, Peep-bo, Pitti-sing, and the girls in the company. The latter is certainly familiar to any who have seen the film "Chariots of Fire". The story line is delightful, hardly a moment passes in the work that does not advance the whole theme.


UFO's production was magnificent, from the orchestra to the company of players. The role of Koko was played by Michael Ballam; Yum-yum by his daughter Vanessa. Much could be said of each of the other performers, but suffice it to say that none of the ensemble, from the leads to the chorus, was unequally yoked. There was a perfection to what they did Friday night which is seldom found in more accessible productions. What was clear was that all of players were enjoying themselves immensely, rejoicing in their performance and relishing every moment of the two and a half hours we were all together. I do not know for certain, but were I to guess, the unity of the cast and the joie d'vivre which they exuded, derived primarily from the presence of Ballam himself.

Michael was the founder of the Utah Festival of Opera and remains the Director. His vision helped produce the Ellen Eccles Theater where most of the UFO performances are staged. There is no finer venue anywhere; not the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, not the Pantages Theater, not the Shubert Theater, magnificent arenas all, where Trillium and I saw the likes of the "Phantom of the Opera", "Les Miserables", and "The Secret Garden". I estimated that there were about 1500 in the audience Friday night, all with a wonderful view of the stage and without any hindrance of the music or dialog.


The theater was built in 1923 and served the community for decades as the Capitol Theater. It was completely remodeled in 1993 and opened as the Ellen Eccles Theater. The stage is 70 feet wide, 36 feet deep, and 65 feet high, allowing for magnificent and imaginative staging. The sound system in conjunction with the natural acoustics of the building is without parallel. It is also called the Cache Valley Center for the Arts. All of these things combined with the energy of the company to make our evening at the opera a memorable one.

Another word about Michael Ballam. For those of us who belong to The Tribe, his face is as familiar to us as any in the world. In conjunction with his familiarity in general, I would like to relate a little anecdote. Years ago, I attended a conference of religious educators held at Brigham Young University. The topic that year was the New Testament. During the opening session, all of the attendees were seated in the Marriott Center anticipating a stimulating introduction to the week's activities. For some reason, I was seated on the floor of the MAC about ten feet from the grand piano. At a certain point in the program, bearded fellow sat down at the piano and was introduced as Michael Ballam. At that time I had no idea who Michael Ballam was, and inasmuch as he was bearded I could not readily see his facial features, even though I could easily see him. But when he spoke........!!!!! a thrill went through my whole system because I knew exactly who he was and why I knew the voice so well. He then sang "O Divine Redeemer". I do not know how many people were in the building, but it was nearly full. There was no noise of any kind while Michael sang. It was as if the entire world, every aspect of it, physical and spiritual, had stopped to witness the premiere symbolic testimony as to the mercy and compassion of the Lord Jesus Christ. When Michael finished, the silence continued for what seemed to me to be a very long time. It was as if we had all been given a few moments to digest what we had just witnessed. Michael withdrew and the conference continued. I remember nothing else of that six-day conference.


So now I sit here at my computer at least 25 years later, making connections with a man whose hand I have never shaken, but who has affected my life profoundly. I hope to have the opportunity to meet him some day. Maybe Trillium and I will go back to the 2010 season. Maybe we will go to the Cafe des Artistes after the show and wade through the hundreds of people there just to look him in the eye, to see up close that wonderful twinkle that is certain to be there.

1 comment:

shydandelion said...

I LOVE Michael Ballam! I am glad you guys had fun. It sounds like it was a nice, relaxing way to spend a birthday.