Every single year, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir puts on the holiday performance of Utah. And a year later, audiences around the world get to revel in its beauty via PBS. This year’s showcase, scheduled for Dec. 15, 2017 on PBS and on Dec. 17 on BYUtv, is set to be no different.
Since its inception in 2000, the “Christmas with the Tabernacle Choir” has been the number one holiday program on PBS as it has not only featured some of the greatest showmanship of our time, but also stars a number of major artists from all around the musical world.
Opera stars have been popular with the show, as such luminaries as Renée Fleming, Deborah Voigt, Bryn Terfel, and Frederica Von Stade, have been among the major guest artists.
Last year’s showcase was perhaps the most unique of all with tenor Rolando Villazón performing a unique role in the program. Unlike years past where there is a guest artist and host, the Mexican singer was asked to take on both roles. It was the first time that any guest artist doubled as host.
Villazón is somewhat of a renaissance man, starring as a tenor at all the major opera houses around the world, but he has also taken a stab at directing, writing, and even hosted a few television programs. This is what made him the ideal choice to host and sing at the 2016 event.
“Getting to know Rolando and his reputation not only as a wonderful musician, but also as a host on a TV program. We felt that he could do it all. That was a first for us,” said Mormon Tabernacle Choir Music Director Dr. Mack Wilberg in a roundtable interview with OperaWire that also included Villazón. “He went from doing some heavy duty singing to then taking up a different role. It was so natural and fluid. It never felt like there was any effort involved.”
The two had met earlier in the year while recording Handel’s “Messiah” and the tenor recalled that they two had had a great time. From there he was approached about the Christmas concert.
“They showed me a DVD that was coming out,” the tenor stated. “It was marvelous.”
Prepared in Two Days
The concert features chorus, orchestra, solo numbers by the guest artists, a storytelling moment for the host, and dance numbers that build on one another. The event is free each year, making it a popular hit. This year’s event sold out in seven minutes.
“There is tremendous momentum to the show. It never slows down,” noted Villazón. “In some galas, it has a rather predictable structure where the overture starts, then everyone takes turns singing arias. That can get rather repetitive, but here… I say something and then I sing or the chorus sings in response. Everything is a consequence of what came before. And that keeps the audience excited.”
What fascinated Villazón, even more, was the preparedness of the ensembles and who they were comprised of. The tenor, had submitted a list of about five songs that he wanted to sing, including Christmas carols from his youth in Mexico. As he put it, they weren’t just the cliché tunes sung in Spanish, but traditional pieces such as “Campana sobre campana,” which he performed while wearing a pancho.
Prior to his performance, he only had two rehearsals before performing, a task he questioned greatly. “Coming from opera, where you have weeks to prepare, this seemed a bit challenging,” he noted.
But when he arrived for those rehearsals, his fears were allayed.
“When I went to sing ‘Campana sobre campana’ they already had the bells prepared and everything,” he noted. “All I had to do was add my energy to theirs and we found the solutions very quickly… It also helps that Mack is so quick to make changes. He immediately knows exactly what is wrong, whether it is just one person in the front row or an entire section, and he’ll make the note quickly and then move on. And then it will sound incredible!”
Volunteering Holiday Spirit
The preparedness of the ensemble is all the more shocking when it is revealed that all of the members of the chorus, orchestra, and dance ensembles are volunteers. Even the people in charge of making costumes are volunteers.
“That brings a wonderful spirit of generosity that you don’t get in other settings,” noted Wilberg.
Per his calculations, the chorus has about 360 people and orchestra has 100. Both the chorus and orchestra remain largely intact from year to year with minor changes as the organization has a strict policy of having chorus members retire either after 20 years of service or at the age of 60.
“We have a 6-month process for our new members,” he stated before adding that the prospects come from different backgrounds. “Some are doctors, dentists, rock stars, school teachers. In total we get over 200 people that audition and we only add seven. It’s a great honor to be in the choir and its highly competitive to get in.”
“This is an extraordinary chorus,” added Villazón. “It’s jaw-dropping because you often put together strong musicians together quickly and they put together something good. This isn’t good. It’s extraordinary.”
He even mentioned that the chorus sings everything from memory.
True Meaning in the Holidays
The theme of last year’s show was reflective of the importance of acceptance and giving.
“The José Luis Peralez was important for me because it was about receiving those who need more,” Villazón noted in reference to one of his selections. “It talks about generosity. It is an important message in terms of Christmas. But in our times it is also an important message – welcoming the other even if they have a different language and different ways of thinking.”
Even the story catered to this message. “The Little Match Girl,” by Hans Christian Andersen, follows a young poor child as she struggles in the streets and eventually dies. The story is one of despair but the two men contested that it also had themes of giving and caring.
It also proved to be one of the more challenging moments of the evening, Villazón initially questioning how he should read the piece.
“Should it be dramatic or should I read it for children as if I was putting them to bed?” he questioned.
The answer turned out to be in the music that Wilberg wrote to accompany the storytelling.
“I heard music and I knew what I had to do,” he noted before adding that finding the language and phrasing for this task came about rather organically. “We didn’t really speak about it. We went for it and while doing it we found the pauses, the crescendos. It was this mutual musical way of understanding the moment. That is a representation of the whole evening. People are very inspired by each other. You feel very welcome and at home. When you come everyone knows each other and everyone is so friendly.”