Nearly 20 years after graduation, I have returned to the U of U campus, this time as part of the University’s staff. The experience has been like rereading a favorite book—the best parts continue to resound, while new discoveries, not captured the first time through, bring great satisfaction. The Voice Box is, resoundingly, one of the best parts.

A small, gray building located on the southeast corner of First South and University Street, the Voice Box was built as the University’s new heating and foundry plant in 1914. Today the structure is home to the Utah Lyric Opera Ensemble, the U’s resident opera company, currently composed of 40 opera students. Tenor Robert Breault, director of the company, is passionate about the Voice Box, not at all put off that it is dwarfed by its stately sister structures—Gardner, Kingsbury, Cowles, and Park—that reside on Presidents Circle. “This building is the only one of its kind in the country devoted entirely to vocal performance,” he notes. Getting the building seven years ago was magical, because with it, Breault says, “came an incredible amount of momentum.”

Formally known as the Voice & Opera Center, the Voice Box has a rich heritage. According to Ralph V. Chamberlin’s The University of Utah: A History of Its First Hundred Years, the old heating plant was, for a time, converted into a metallurgical laboratory, and then remodeled to serve as headquarters for the Department of Music. Later it became the Playbox Theatre for the Department of Speech. After 1944 the building was used for productions scheduled through the University Theatre series.

In the early ’60s, about the same time Willam Christensen’s University Theatre Ballet became Utah Civic Ballet (Ballet West’s forerunner), the old Playbox was converted into a ballet studio for his program. A new wood floor was installed and Christensen worked from an office in the facility. But the real significance of the building, according to U ballet professor Barbara Hamblin BFA’73, was the work that developed there. “Bill’s program allowed students to study and take classes,” she says. “When they got good enough, these students would join the professional company. This was an ideal way for students to dance professionally and get a college degree at the same time.”

Other Utah artists who created big ideas in the small space included ballet professors Mattlyn Gavers, Gordon Paxman ex’64, and Bene Arnold BFA’67 MFA’69 BS’77 MEd’78. Glade Peterson, Ardean Watts MA’60, and Maurice Abravanel also prepared students for careers with Utah Opera, Ballet West, and the Utah Symphony. In 1980 Christensen moved his preparatory program off campus. The Division of Continuing Education renamed the program The Ballet School, which operated from the Voice Box until the Marriott Center for Dance was completed in the late 1980s.

For a time the Voice Box—designated as building 0002 by facilities management—was used for cold storage. In 1991 a portion of University Media Services, responsible for KUED and KUER, moved its offices to the Voice Box for three years while the Eccles Broadcast Center was built. It was there that the Utah Education Network (UEN) was born. Looking back on that time, Stephen Hess BS’73 MS’74 PhD’78, associate vice president for information technology and executive director of UEN, reminisces, “It’s an elegant little building. It has a nice feel to it and always did. Considering all that happened there, we had the sense that it was a pretty special place.”

In 1994, Utah Lyric Opera Ensemble was given the building, which has yet to bear the name of a donor or have its own endowment, to pursue what Breault calls “the ultimate form of singing.”

Most of Utah Lyric Opera Ensemble’s rehearsals—its sweat equity—take place in the Voice Box. The hardwood floors remain, but instead of ballet bars, bleachers now descend from the west wall of the 40-by-60-foot rehearsal studio. The rest of the building consists of two dressing rooms, a conference room, and Breault’s office.

It was with vested interest—my husband’s cousin sings with the troupe—that I recently listened to the ensemble perform Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” at Libby Gardner Concert Hall. The tragic opera is based on a true story about nuns who, during the French Revolution, were executed for remaining loyal to their religious beliefs. Combined with the hall’s world-class acoustics, the moving performance brought me (and the audience) to tears.

Surely the history that infuses the Voice Box can be heard in the voices so beautifully trained in it today—the most enamoring of the many voices at the University. It’s a full-volume tribute to one small box.

—Ann Jardine Bardsley BA’84 is a writer and public relations specialist in the University’s marketing and communications office.