With a little bit of luck and a lot of talent, a daddy/daughter duo and a cast of other gifted performers from across the country are gearing up to delight audiences this summer as Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre kicks off its 20th season.
“It’s a blockbuster season,” exclaimed Michael Ballam, founding general director of UFOMT.
The festival’s main stage productions this year include “Kiss Me Kate,” “Faust,” “My Fair Lady” and “Tosca.” The productions begin in back-to-back openings Thursday and Friday, July 12 and 13.
Opening four productions in one week is no easy task, especially as UFOMT staff, performers and crew enter what theater world devotees lovingly refer to as “hell week.” Ballam joked the description is fitting, particularly since the opera “Faust” takes place in the Underworld.
But the result is heavenly, and Ballam said opera and musical theater fans are in for a rare treat.
Ballam not only oversees the festival — which attracts artists and audiences from across the country — but is also taking on the role of Alfred P. Doolittle, the rambunctious father of a Cockney flower girl with big dreams and an even bigger heart in the beloved musical “My Fair Lady.”
Written by the songwriting duo of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, “My Fair Lady” premiered on Broadway in 1956 and starred Rex Harrison and a yet-unknown English actress by the name of Julie Andrews. The production was a huge hit, and at that time became the longest-running musical in Broadway’s history. Harrison re-created the role in the 1964 film, and the role of the grubby flower girl was played by Audrey Hepburn.
The UFOMT production stars Ballam’s real-life daughter Vanessa Ballam as Eliza Doolittle and Kyle Pfortmiller as phoneticist and confirmed bachelor Henry Higgins. The two also star opposite one another as Fred Graham/Petruchio and Lilli Vanessi/ Kate in the festival’s other musical theater offering, Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate.”
“I must confess that ‘My Fair Lady’ was never a work I ever intended to produce,” Ballam said. However, Ballam re-examined his plans after hearing Pfortmiller perform and knowing his daughter “was born to play this part.”
“When I realized that there was a pair of this stature who could not only bring what the motion picture and the stage play brought, but also seriously beautiful voices — then I thought: We really need to do this.”
“Kiss Me Kate,” a tale of modern-day show business blended with Shakespeare’s comedy “The Taming of the Shrew,” is also a great fit for the festival.
Ballam noted that Porter, who considered the musical his masterpiece, originally wrote the music for more operatic voices.
“This is a work that really should be performed by companies like ourselves who view the human voice as a heroic instrument to give this music what Cole Porter had in mind,” he said.
Life imitates art, and the Ballams are looking forward to bringing some of their real-life relationship to the stage in the roles of the feisty Eliza and crafty Alfred.
Both Ballams are excited to be working with Pfortmiller, whose rising career in the opera world is not a surprise to the elder Ballam, who himself has performed to critical acclaim with major opera companies around the world.
“I think this particular season will be remembered as the Kyle Pfortmiller season, because he’s got leading roles in both musicals and ‘Faust,’ ” Ballam said. “I’m glad we’re not paying him by the note or we’d go broke.”
This is Pfortmiller’s fourth season with UFOMT; he is also playing Valentin in “Faust.” Pfortmiller first performed at the festival in 2005 in its production of “Kismet.”
“I have been blessed to come back two other times since then,” Pfortmiller said. “I’m sort of on the every-other-year plan.”
Pfortmiller grew up near Chicago and for the last few years has been performing with the Metropoliton Opera in New York City. Pfortmiller considers his voice a “gift” and is grateful for the opportunities that have come his way.
More and more in today’s world, artists are more marketable if they are able to cross genres from opera to musical theater. Without getting too technical, Pfortmiller said, it is simply a matter of “slimming down the voice,” but the technique remains the same.
“For me personally, and baritones in general, they are blessed with the ability to cross over a little bit easier,” he said
The role of Henry Higgins was immortalized by Harrison, a non-singer but extraordinary actor who famously talked his way through the part.
“You have to start with a nod to Rex Harrison because he has embodied it so,” Pfortmiller said of his preparations for the role. “But what is so fantastic about the show is that if you simply read the text, the character comes to life. When you are able to put on the correct accent and you live in the moment, the character begins to create itself if you allow it to.”
Finding that character has been a wonderful process at the festival, and Pfortmiller credits his director, an outstanding ensemble and his co-star.
“Working with Vanessa has really been amazing,” Pfortmiller said of his leading lady.
Vanessa Ballam, who also serves as education director at festival, has enjoyed a successful career in productions in Utah and throughout the country, including companies such as the Utah Shakespeare Festival, Pennsylvania Shakespeare and the Old Lyric Repertory Company.
“Every young lady grows up wanting to be Eliza Doolittle and aspiring to be Audrey Hepburn, who was such an icon for all of us, and especially me,” she said. “This is a role that has been on my list since I was a very little girl ... I’m so pleased to be playing the part and being opposite Kyle is such a treat.”
“Kyle and I were talking about this the other day and how delightful it is to do be doing what we love,” she said. “It is a rather intensive rehearsal process because we are quite busy, but it’s just thrilling to be able to create these characters. To have the same leading man in both shows is a lot of fun because they’re both so different.”
The real thing
“Kiss Me Kate” is also known for its high-energy dance numbers, and Vanessa Ballam noted that their production includes no less than 22 different dance routines.
“The abilities of these ensemble members is thrilling,” she said. “To stand there as a lead in the show and to hear the voices and see the dancing surrounding you is just very exciting.”
The festival not only offers a chance to see some phenomenal talent, but also hear orchestrations as the composers intended.
Budgetary constraints across the country — including on Broadway — force many theater companies to use canned music or scaled-back orchestras and synthesized instruments when staging shows, Ballam said.
Not so at the UFOMT, which utilizes a 45-member orchestra of musicians from all over the country. Musicals of the ’40s and ’50s — such as “Kiss Me Kate” and “My Fair Lady,” were originally conceived with lush, symphonic orchestrations.
“We may end up being the last place in the world that you will be able to hear these musicals with the full orchestrations because we have got them here to play ‘Faust’ and to play ‘Tosca,’ .... we have personnel to do it,” Ballam said. “There won’t be any place left who will be able to do ‘My Fair Lady’ like we’re going to do it.”
THE MAIN SEASON
The 2012 Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre’s season includes four main stage productions in repertory, seven concerts, backstage tours, breakfast with the stars, talk-back sessions and 22 academy classes.
Festival events, concerts, classes and productions are scheduled July 11 through Aug. 11. Tickets range in price from $12 to $76 for the main productions.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.utahfestival.org or call the box office at 800-262-0074. Performances are in the Ellen Eccles Theatre, 43 S. Main St., Logan.
• “Kiss Me Kate” (various times and days, July 12-Aug. 10) is a play within a play that blends modern show business with classic Elizabethan theater. When actor Fred Graham stages a musical version of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” he casts film star Lilli — his temperamental ex-wife — in the leading role. Add a couple of bumbling gangsters, a second feuding romantic couple and a rollicking score by Cole Porter.
• Charles Gounod’s “Faust” (various times and days, July 12-Aug. 11) stars tenor Marc Schreiner, Grammy nominee Kristopher Irmiter, baritone Kyle Pfortmiller from the Metropolitan Opera and returning soprano Jessica Medoff. In this classic tale, Faust would give anything to have it all. To get it, he sells his soul to Mephistopheles.
• “Tosca” (various times and days, July 13-Aug. 10) comes to life with Carla Hanson in the title role, which the soprano also has played with the New York City Opera. Giacomo Puccini’s masterpiece has thrilled audiences for more than a century now with its passion, power and politics.
• “My Fair Lady” (various times and days, July 13-Aug. 11) has been dubbed “the perfect musical” by the New York Times, and UFOMT is out to show why in an elaborate production that showcases the Lerner and Loewe musical. The production stars Vanessa Ballam as Eliza Doolittle, Kyle Pfortmiller as Henry Higgins and Michael Ballam as Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s father. When persnickety linguistics professor Henry Higgins meets disheveled Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, he wagers that within six months he can change her into a proper lady. The musical is based on George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion,” and its score includes classics such as “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “On the Street Where You Live,” “The Rain in Spain” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”
EXTRA UFOMT EVENTS
Like a Gershwin tune? Want to go over the rainbow one more time? How ’bout some Bach? Then head to the Cache Valley, where Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre presents an array of special performances and concerts during the season.
• 8 Hands 2 Pianos (7:30 p.m., Wednesday, July 11) — UFOMT’s accomplished pianists perform. $24-$60.
• “Girl Crazy” (7:30 p.m. July 18 and 1 p.m. Aug. 2) — The legendary Ethel Merman made her Broadway debut in the musical by George and Ira Gershwin. Presented in concert style during the festival, the musical includes Gershwin hits such as “I Got Rhythm,” “Embraceable You” and “Bidin’ My Time.” $11-$54.
• A Tribute to Judy Garland (1 p.m. July 19 and 7:30 p.m. July 28) — 2012 marks the 90th anniversary of Judy Garland’s birth; UFOMT celebrates with a special concert. $11-$54.
• Pioneers and Patriots (7:30 p.m. July 24) — Celebrate Pioneer Day and the Western spirit with a combination of popular tunes, military anthems, lighthearted favorites and classics. $10-$45.
• International Opera Competition (1 p.m. July 25 and 7:30 p.m. July 31) — UFOMT hosts more than 20 talented artists, competing in the Michael Ballam Fourth Annual Operatic Competition. The winner, selected by a panel of judges and by audience members, will head for Italy to compete for an international title. $15.
• Operafest (7:30 p.m. Aug. 1) — The UFOMT ensemble, soloists and orchestra join forces to perform overtures, arias and ensembles from some of the world’s most popular operas. $10-$45.
• “St. Matthew Passion” (6:30 p.m. Aug. 8) — Widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of classical sacred music, J.S. Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” tells the story of Christ’s crucifixion as told in Matthew: 26 and 27. UFOMT teams once again with the American Festival Chorus, conducted by Craig Jessop, to perform the work. $9-$40.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.utahfestival.org or call the box office at 800-262-0074. Discounts are available for children and students. Performances are in the Ellen Eccles Theatre, 43 S. Main St., Logan.