Who or what first sparked your interest in music?
I was born into a family for whom music was their primary driving force. My great-grandfather joined the Church after having heard a Mormon congregation in Randers, Denmark, after having “bashed” the missionaries for many years. The “spirit” in the music touched him, he told me. After immigrating to Benson, Utah, he conducted choirs in Cache Valley the rest of his life. His prized possession was his piano. I was the only grandchild he ever let play it. He could sense from my babyhood (two years old) that I would be a musician. My aunts and uncles sang, my mother sang—it was like breathing in our house. Mother says I sang before I spoke. Who wouldn’t?
What influenced your decision to become a singer?
I never thought of doing anything else. I gave my first public performance as a singer when I was two. By the time I was in high school, I was making my living exclusively from singing. In junior high, a vocational guidance teacher told me I could not become an opera singer. “Why not?” I asked.
“Have you ever seen a professional opera?”
I had not. The nearest opportunity to do that was San Francisco, seven hundred miles away.
“Do you know anyone who makes their living as an opera singer?”
I did not.
“Then what makes you think you can?” he asked.
“Because I will do whatever it takes to become one!”
“Nevertheless,” he said, “you can’t.”
“Why not?” I pressed.
“Because it’s not on this list!” was his response.
It wasn’t on that list then, and it isn’t now. I’ve been suspicious of lists ever since. A statistician friend of mine says that the possibility of a kid from River Heights, Utah, making his living exclusively from singing on the stage is so close to impossible that he would consider it being so. Since I didn’t know that, I just went ahead and did it. I have never done anything else to support me and my six children. Though I am a professor at Utah State University and Founding General Director of the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre, those salaries funnel to the Festival to keep it solvent. Essentially, I have sung for my supper exclusively for the past forty-six years. I never contemplated for even a moment doing anything else.
How has your study of music enlarged your understanding and testimony of the gospel and the Book of Mormon?
Like my great-grandfather, music has been the conduit through which the Spirit has communicated truth to me. My earliest recollection of that came when I was five years of age and experienced a live performance of Handel’s Messiah. Seated in front of the bass viols, I knew the moment they began the first phrase of the overture that it came directly from God. Many very personal miracles have been afforded me through music that have solidified my unwavering testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the restored gospel.
Immersed in a world dominated by Judaic tradition and Jews, I have spent half of my life studying and revering the seminal contribution to the arts they have made. Our family celebrates most of the Jewish holidays and spent a sabbatical year living in Jerusalem, where we all studied Hebrew. Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist of Fiddler on the Roof, and a very special family friend, teases me that I am more Jewish than he is. I do have a deep love for the Jews and it informs my personal beliefs in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. The Book of Mormon was clearly written by ancient Jews and anyone with a deep understanding of Judaism and the Hebrew language would recognize it immediately.
I studied at the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem and from Ezri Uval, at Hebrew University, the pre-eminent expert on the ancient tradition of chanting the holy scriptures. During a lecture presentation at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, professor Uval was chanting (chasanot) the book of Genesis. He was approached by a group of Navajo students there who asked from whence the melody came. He explained that the tradition went back to Moses, but had been codified by some rabbis in Tiberius, Israel, in the eighth century. The reason they asked was because the tunes were the same as those their forefathers used to chant the story of the creation. He asked me how I thought it was possible that a people removed from ancient Israel could have maintained the same melodies for centuries. He asked if I thought the American Indians (as he put it) could possibly be a remnant of the house of Israel and, if so, how did the tunes get to the American continent. I told him that I could not explain that to him in Israel as I had promised his government that I would not proselyte while living there. Instead, I brought him to Utah to speak to the students at Utah State University and presented him with a copy of the Book of Mormon which he read immediately. It was proof positive to him that the ancient scriptures (Plates of Laban) had brought the melodies with them across the seas by members of the house of Israel.
The more I read the Book of Mormon the more certain I am that no unschooled youth from Palmyra, New York, could ever have concocted such a story. Neither could anyone without firsthand knowledge of the ancient Israeli/Hebrew experience.
What have been some of your most magical moments with Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre and how do they compare with your time in New York?
I have had extraordinary experiences performing on the stages of Carnegie Hall, The Metropolitan Opera, and Towne Hall, to name a few of the New York venues. None of them compare to the thrill of standing in the wings watching children bring the music of Puccini, Verdi, Mussorgsky, and Wagner to life in their original languages on the stage upon which I made my operatic debut at the age of five. Launching the careers of young artists from around the world and bringing premiere artists from the Met to La Scala to my home town thrills me to the core. I hope to be able continue to do so for the rest of my life.
What is your short list of must-listen songs for those who want to know more about both the classics and songs that might not be classics but are uplifting?
If I were exiled to a desert island with only ten songs to get me through the rest of my life, it would be the following:
- “I Am a Child of God” — Mildred Pettit and Naomi Randall
- “Remember Me” — Deanna Edwards
- “An die Musik” (“Praise to Music”) — Franz Schubert and Franz von Schober
- “Without a Song” — Vincent Youmans, Billy Rose, and Edward Eliscu
- “The Spirit of God”
- “The Sound of Music” — Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein
- “Annie Laurie”
- “O Danny Boy”
- “O mio babbino caro” — Puccini
- “With a Song in My Heart” — Rodgers and Hart
- Messiah — Handel
- 9th Symphony (choral movement) — Beethoven
- 5th Symphony — Beethoven
- “Dies Irae” from Requiem — Verdi
- “Pie Jesu” from Requiem — Lloyd Webber
- “Der holle Rache” from Magic Flute — Mozart
- Ave verum corpus — Mozart
- Erkonig — Schubert
- Rhapsody in Blue — Gershwin
- “Overture”/”Summertime” from Porgy & Bess — Gershwin
As a music educator, what do you see as being the most important lesson to learn?
Music is one of God’s most eloquent languages and a channel through which he can communicate directly to our hearts. It (organized vibration) is the substance that holds the universe together and essence of life. Music affects our behavior, intellect, health, and communication skills, and it affects our souls both positively and negatively. That is the reason that our choice of music to which we associate is crucial.
Could you expound a bit more on why our choice of music is so crucial?
We live in the most dramatic period of human history. Good and evil have never been as profound. One has to make a choice between light and dark as never before in history. There is very little “gray area.” Never has there been more availability to powerful music which either leads us to the light or to the darkness. Music is a facilitator to take us in one of the two directions. Our musical choices define who we are and what we believe.
Does your family sing together often? Did any of your children have a favorite song you would sing to them when they were young?
We do sing together, and all of my children have performed in musicals and operas with me. Our favorite singing opportunities are contrapuntal … ”I Have a Home/Love is Spoken Here”; “My Mother (Father), My Daughter”; “How Great Shall Be Your Joy” (all by Janice Kapp Perry); “Peace on Earth/Silent Night” (Peggy Lee and Franz Gruber).
How does the gospel influence your preparation for a role or performance?
We founded the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre with following mission statement: “Bringing people together for ennobling artistic experiences. The word ennobling is the most important word there. It means that our job is to present works that lifts and changes people’s lives for the better.
Before every public performance my prayers are to ask the Lord to allow the music to be a means through which he can communicate to the audience. For years my prayers were about supporting my abilities: “Please allow my voice to function properly, help me remember the words and the music, etc.” I no longer ask for those favors. Instead I ask to be an instrument in his hands. That gives me a sense of peace.
Thirty-five years ago I performed on a program with President Ezra Taft Benson in which I sang and he spoke. It was a very large audience, most of whom knew nothing about the Mormons and had serious reservations about our beliefs. Before the performance, he asked me to kneel with him and offer a prayer. I was very relieved when it was he who offered the prayer. He asked the Lord to allow the music to “open the hearts of the people.” It was a milestone experience in my life to hear a prophet speak those words. It validated my feelings about music having that power, and how the Lord can use it for that purpose.
How are you preparing for your upcoming role as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables?
I have three heroes who stand very high in my esteem. They are Alma, the Apostle Paul, and Jean Valjean. Since my first reading of Les Misérables forty years ago, Valjean became a giant. He is the man I would like to be. He makes a decision to walk away from the miserable nature of man and seek for nobility. He repays a debt from the Bishop of Digne, who forgives him of a heinous crime, by spending the rest of his life in service to others.
I have availed myself to every commentary and performance on stage and screen of Les Mis to broaden my perspective of Valjean. The greatest insight I have found in him is through his creator Victor Hugo, whose writings I have studied all of my life. I have made pilgrimages to the home in which Hugo wrote Les Mis and tried to climb into his mind to illuminate the derivation of Valjean. With the help of friends and family members, I have done the temple endowment work for Victor Hugo and his family and in doing so have felt very close to him. Valjean is the embodiment of all the Hugo strove for and longed for in the goodness of man.
I have pondered and prepared for twenty years to play Valjean. A day does not go by that I do not think about how I can attempt to portray this wonderful man. It will be one of the great honors in my life to have embodied him on the stage.
How do you see music as an influence for good in the world and in helping to share the gospel?
The music to which people listen says a great deal about who they are. It is often a reflection of their ethical belief. I have witnessed music change the hearts of enemies. I have known it to suspend wars and conflicts. Likewise, it has the power to anger and intimidate. Hearts are touched through music in ways that words can never achieve. That is both the good news and the bad news. Lyrics of hate, debauchery and degradation can be planted in good hearts if the music to which they are set is beguiling enough. Never in history has exceptional music been used to preach gospels of evil and harm. Nevertheless, never in history have we had access to inspired music to the extent to which we do today. There has never been a time when we could more effectively turn to the light or to the darkness through music. Music performed by the Tabernacle Choir has had tremendous influence in opening hearts of people to the message of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. It can transport us very quickly to sensitive spots in our hearts and souls.
Do you have a favorite memory when you were able to reach out through music to someone whom you might not have been able to reach in any other way?
As a hospice volunteer I visited the home of an elderly couple in Philadelphia with the intent of singing a song of hope. Mr. Pasquale Volare had been in a coma for many weeks. It was not likely that he would awaken and be made well. Nevertheless, his wife of sixty years wanted to be at his side just in case he awoke to say goodbye. She had not slept for weeks and was experiencing tremendous stress and despondency. The hospice coordinator, who took me to the home, hoped that a song of hope would be comforting to her.
In my singing to her a song from her homeland, “Torna a Surriento,” her husband repeated one of the words in the song. He awoke from the coma from hearing the song. I sang another at his request, “O sole mio,” and quietly withdrew from their home in order that they could be alone together with tears of joyous reunion and farewell.
I feel I was guided to sing that song. It was important to Pasquale and he heard it through the “fog and distance” of being in a coma. I felt it was one of the Lord’s tender mercies to the two of them and to me for being able to be part of it.
What makes the human voice such a special instrument?
The human voice is the only instrument created by God. All the rest are crafted by man.
How has singing help you be able to help build the kingdom?
I was called and set apart in a unique calling twenty-five years ago as a “musical missionary at large” for the Church. As with any calling, I believe I have had special help to assist in the building of the kingdom.
What are some things that you have learned from that “musical missionary at large” experience when it comes to sharing the gospel?
Music goes directly to the heart. It is possible to touch someone with a three-minute song whom a three-hour speech could never reach. I have twenty years of extraordinary experiences where a song opened a closed, broken, or angry heart and began a healing or conversion of that heart. ❧