Walking into the Conference Center at Temple Square, you can’t help but gasp. The 21,000-seat hall at the heart of Salt Lake City, Utah, is overwhelming.
Richard Thomas, one of two guest artists for the 2019 Christmas With The Tabernacle Choir concert (which airs December 14 on PBS), agrees: “The venue is just astonishing. For greedy actors, it’s the ultimate, it’s heaven. But the spiritual aura of the artists, of the venue, of the intention, the seriousness of intention behind the work, is really palpable, and it’s just thrilling to be a part of it because I feel that I will be able to plug all of my love of Christmas into this experience.”
“I’m like, okay, that’s my Christmas present,” he says of his invitation to join the special. “Of course, I know of the event. It’s huge. We had LPs of the choir in our home when I was a boy growing up. And Christmas music, the choir sings, was just part of all my childhood Christmases. … I’ve driven my family crazy over Christmas for years and years, and this is the ultimate way to celebrate it. Also, I have to say that when I was told that Kelli was going to be the other guest artist, I just was so excited because she is the preeminent singing actress of our time in the American theatre and—
“You heard it here,” O’Hara interjects with a laugh. O’Hara makes good on that moniker. The resonance of her soprano floats like snowflakes, and her natural maternal warmth cradles the audience in her spirit. If her voice doesn’t push you to tears, Thomas’ Christmas story will. (There aren’t actually words to capture his magic.)
The warmth that bubbles between the two distinguishes this year’s concert—like a brother and sister inviting you inside from the cold. Even in the massive space, Thomas and O’Hara make you feel you’re cozying up in their cottage. “It’s a question of finding the right degree of intimacy,” Thomas says. “The house just feels amazingly intimate for how big it is actually. The back wall feels much closer than you think it’s going to be. It’s beautifully designed.”
Audiences at home will feel that intimacy and bathe in the musicality. “There’s one passage when he’s speaking and they come in…” O’Hara sighs. “There are 365 voices, but it is so tiny in this way and perfectly in sync with harmonies, but it feels like you almost want to lean in just to hear them and you can’t imagine 365 voices, but they’re so trained and disciplined and technical and able, that it was almost like a wash of sound as opposed to singers. It almost felt like something the air might do. And that to me is the highest form of art.”
Playbill sat down with O’Hara and Thomas the morning of opening night to talk about the personal milestone of performing with the Tabernacle Choir, filling the behemoth space, and the Christmas memory to last a lifetime.
Kelli, you started in opera, you returned to opera recently with the Così Fan Tutte, plus, of course, all of these different genres across Broadway. How does this music resonate differently with you, if at all?
Kelli O’Hara: You know, this type of music, I don’t really put it in the category of opera or especially musical theatre. I put it back in the category of spiritual and the things that I grew up singing. And, so I feel very at home with most of it. This concert sort of stands apart for me from most things that I do.
Richard, you spoke about having listened to recordings when you were younger. What was your impression of what you might expect from the Choir and the concert, and what was either surprising or what fulfilled those expectations once you arrived?
Thomas: I was a little worried that the venue was going to be so overwhelming that it would be difficult to find my place in it in terms of being able to deliver, but I was amazed when we walked in to see it. As I sat in there, there’s a feeling of intimacy in the space. I think you’ll experience it yourself. It’s very different than I expected. It feels much closer and much more… The audience feels much more available.
O’Hara: It wasn’t so much about the size of the space. I find that once you’re on this side of it, you’re on the stage. That’s a place where that feels like home, no matter the size. It’s the quality around you that would make me more anxious. Having heard something all your life and knowing it’s the best in the world and knowing and hearing it to prove it…that’s more the concern. It’s not about the size, it’s just more about the quality.
Kelli, you mentioned what it was like to hear them, like that wash of sound as Richard was narrating. What is the feeling when you’re singing with them?
O’Hara: The thing that strikes me, especially about that sound I was talking about—[we have great] ensembles and we have great harmonies and we have great orchestrations in New York. And that’s my favorite thing when we come together. But that sound they made last night is unity. It’s ego-free. It’s a real dedication to a blend rather than a standout. And we’re in a business of stand out, and that’s the way it works. But I grew up in choirs, and I grew up in knowing the importance of that. And I think it’s a symbol for a lot of things. If these people are dedicated and reverent and able to make one sound, 365 of them, that’s when you know that you’re dealing with people who want the best for the humanity at large.
Thomas: I agree completely. And I think that this sense of interconnectedness that Kelli’s talking about is always present. It feels monumentally present in this situation. In terms of the difference in kind of this sort of work and music and texts as opposed to other stuff that we do, it is the spiritual element. It also goes all the way back because whatever holidays you celebrate, they’re in your psyche. They’re part of you. All humanity is already in you when you approach a role or try… But there’s something about the spirituality or the spiritual traditions of one’s family that go way back. You carry them in you and something like this just brings them forward because you’re already there.
You talk about not being the standout and unity. I was googling around last night, and there are these articles of “The 10 things you should know about Kelli O’Hara who’s coming here.” Is that liberating in a way to come in with a fresh slate to some people because Broadway is so geographically far?
O’Hara: I didn’t think about it that way. I guess, sure. I think of every single opportunity to share what we do with the assumption that I’m introducing myself. I’m not there where I say, “Don’t you know who I am?” But I also feel like this isn’t my show. I’m part of a whole, that’s what desperately makes us want to do well.
Thomas: The bar is already high, and you want to be at the same level as everything around you.
Do you think that approaching everything as an introduction to who you are and approaching everything new is part of what has contributed to your longevity? Both of you. This is not an industry that most people can cultivate a longevity in and yet the two of you have and still are.
O’Hara: I’ll just speak for myself. I think the worst thing you can do—that’s why I sometimes have an inner battle with social media… I think if you knew every single thing about me, how could you come in and watch me play a role and truly invest and truly go inside if I’m still just the character of Kelli O’Hara? If you know every single thing about everything I feel, how can you believe in me? So when you say, “How does that feel for people not to know [who you are]?” Well, I imagine they’ll get the Christmas message a little bit better. Because they’ll just be listening to it as opposed to seeing what she’s going to do with her big stardom.
Thomas: For me it’s easy because the older I get, the less there is to know. It’s like, the less interesting it all becomes. You become more transparent and more invisible. So it’s a beautiful thing to be able to introduce yourself—as Kelli says so well—over and over again.
What is the thing that you haven’t done, whether it’s something really small and personal or whether it’s something really big and professional that you would like to make time for in the future? This is the poem I’ve been waiting to write. This is the story I’ve been waiting to tell. This is the song I really wanted to learn….
Thomas: I would like to have played in a place like Epidaurus, one of the early, early theatres in Greece. For that would have been an experience. My secret desire, I’m not a singer as I’ve told you, but to be doing something in the middle of a musical is this experience I’d never had. Just speaking, but surrounded by that every night.
And for you, Kelli?
O’Hara: Well, all of those things you say, I write all the time. But when you say things like that, I think about my kids. I regret that I never was on Sesame Street for them and that I still haven’t done a Christmas album. Just for them really. I mean there are a million Christmas albums out there, so I don’t even expect it to go anywhere for more than just posterity for my grandchildren.