I light-heartedly described a well-known US politician – guess who, Donald? – as a “perverse b*****d”. I thought I was being rather mild, riding the ebb and flow of conversation. But the room fell silent in shock. The eight-year-old grandson of my host, who had been chattering animatedly until the moment of unwonted profanity, just about rescued his jaw from hitting the floor.

This was a Mormon household in Salt Lake City, Utah, and I was an incomer, unfamiliar with the protocols. Don’t swear. No hot drinks. The Book of Mormon? Never seen it.

I’d blown it. Junior was clearly expecting an inevitable thunderbolt to punish my heresy. That’s what happened to apostates like me, wasn’t it? In rapid recovery mode, I apologised. “Of course, it was wrong of me to use the word ‘perverse’. Sorry.” Nervous giggles, a resumption of general conversation and some disappointment from the kid that I had not been immediately zapped.

Strict family discipline – an art long forgotten elsewhere – is one of the engaging features of Salt Lake’s Mormon families, I was to learn. It was a shock to meet well-mannered children keen to engage in conversation rather than play Zongo on their mobiles. We have become so inured to game-addicted zombie youth that active engagement felt almost alien.

I was weekending in a charming family home in a suburban town close to Salt Lake City, visiting for the first time to see a performance of Mason Bates’ The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, by Utah Opera.

Snafu. The opera was cancelled at the last minute because of cast indisposition. Small, tightly run opera companies have no back-up principals to call on.

My hosts were unphased. A visit to The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square – I hadn’t clocked it had changed its name from The Mormon Tabernacle Choir in 2018 – would provide the weekend’s substitute musical experience on Sunday morning.

The choir has been broadcasting weekly since July 1929. The only longer running radio show is the BBC’s Shipping Forecast, pumping out weather information about Utsira and Dogger Bank to the bleary-eyed since 1924. Even The Archers, nowadays an everyday story of woke and ESG folk, are parvenus, on the horn since only 1951.

I had no idea I would be visiting the Taj Mahal of religious choral work. The Tabernacle, dating back to 1865, is huge, boasting the best acoustics of any building in the world. Brigham Young, who led the Mormons to Salt Lake City, modelled the structure “on the roof of my mouth” which he reckoned the best sounding board he knew.

Silent, the auditorium is impressive. Seating for 3,600, an organ of 11,623 pipes, 147 speaking stops and 206 ranks (rows of pipes), which ranks it alongside Westminster Abbey’s Harrison and Harrison organ of 1937. There it sits, a dominating backdrop nowadays bathed in subtle hues of pale blue light, its two main pillars of massive bass pipes thrusting heavenwards.

Below, rank the 360 members of the choir, all faithful church members. They are arranged in a powerful V formation, women stage right, men stage left, with a small mixed group at the bottom. The impression is that the whole caboodle is at risk of heading heavenwards at any time, like an Elon Musk Starship, but minus the risk of spontaneous combustion.

At full chat, organ blazing, choir full-voiced, the auditorium becomes a magical space. Gospel music or Handel’s religious Hallelujah – it matters little which – provoke those hairs on the back of the neck that bristle at exceptional sound.

Courtesy to visitors is almost unsettling. Not for a moment are you left without a smiling guide. To my astonishment, before the broadcast went live, we were reminded to turn off our mobile phones and then bade to welcome, “Gerald Malone from London, a former member of Margaret Thatcher (that name still gets hearts pumping in Utah) and John Major’s government and an… opera critic”. Invited to stand, I happily acknowledged something unfamiliar to today’s political generation – polite applause.

The choir’s repertoire is, as one might suspect, evangelical in voice. But there is a huge effort to capture a world of church music well beyond American shores. Spanish, English and French melodies jostle with the church’s own Michael F Moody and the conventional George Frederic Handel works for space on the weekly playlist.

Mack Wilberg has been musical director since 2008. He graduated from the local Brigham Young University in 1979 and is an acknowledged composer in his own right. Pick up on some of his works here. The even sound he delivers from his 360 volunteer choristers is impressive.

Meticulous, after he spotted a camera intruding into shot during the live broadcast, he apologetically detained us for a reshoot of that hymn so the archived footage would be missing the blooper.

I shall have to bide my time to catch another performance of Mason’s (R)evolution. It is an important opera, dealing with the rise, fall, rise again and ultimate tragic death of a man – Steve Jobs – who single-handedly brought the world the mobile phone revolution. We would all still be using our mobiles for making phone calls if it hadn’t been for Steve. How dull!

The opera, which premiered in 2017, six years after Jobs’ death, tells of his life as a young man, the early days of Apple, the catastrophic flameout that sent him away in disgrace, and the eventual return that turned Apple once again into a technological giant.

Woven into the libretto are his relationships with the people around him: his father Paul, his friend and the genius behind the Apple, Steve “Woz” Wozniak, his early love, Chrisann Brennan and eventually his wife, Laurene.

As the evening progresses, we watch a bright, curious young man exploring the how and why of a world around him which has become obsessed with taking on IBM/Microsoft and their lock on the business market. This eventually leads to an internal war within Apple, which ends in him resigning.

He meets Laurene at a lecture, spends some time away rebuilding himself, and comes back to lead the company to the forefront of the technological revolution before succumbing to pancreatic cancer.

Through it all, Jobs is guided by Kōbun Chino Otogawa, a zen master Jobs studied under for many years and who steers him, gently but firmly, full circle to the end.

As Michel van der Aa’s 2021 opera Upload dealt with the moral issues surrounding the onrush of artificial intelligence, so (R)evolution takes on the biography of one of the most significant cultural figures of our time. This is exactly what modern opera is good at. Nero, Agrippina, Macbeth, Otello, all shaped their own eras and are terrific stars of opera stage. Good to hear about the current generation shaping ours.

I asked Opera Utah whether they would revisit the production next season, but it seems I shall have to look elsewhere for a live performance. I do, however, have a ticket for Massenet’s Thaïs in May 2024. Thaïs was converted by a Cenobite monk. Maybe there is some read across to Jobs’ zen master. Or maybe not.

And maybe I will be invited back for another Tabernacle Choir performance. If I promise to wash my mouth out!

And Another Thing!

English National Opera (ENO) has come out of its Arts Council imposed cuts’ corner fighting. It promises a zinger of a 23/24 season, announced this week.

Nine world class opera productions will be staged at ENO’s London Coliseum home. (How on earth can anyone even contemplate the closure of this cultural bastion?)

Marina Abramovic’s 7 Deaths of Maria Callas receives a UK premiere. I already have my ticket and was amazed how quickly the dots were already disappearing on the ENO’s website. Buy now, while you can.

Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle – semi staged; David Alden’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes; the beloved Iolanthe from Gilbert and Sullivan; Verdi’s La Traviata; a revival of Annilese Miskimmon’s A Handmaid’s Tale; Jonathan Miller’s production of The Barber of Seville; the ever popular The Magic Flute; and, maintaining its long connection with the works of Janáček, Jenûfa. This performance will be conducted by the Canadian conductor, Keri-Lynn Wilson. She of the Ukraine Freedom Orchestra.

It’s obvious that ENO has been raiding the locker. But that’s what we all do in straightened times. Where’s that old summer suit? It is to the company’s credit it has such a deep locker to raid. And the chutzpah to blend that repertoire with the new. I think ENO, in its measured, constructive response to the Arts Council budget cuts, is earning new friends, and encouraging old ones to fight even harder to allow it to maintain its place at the forefront of English language opera. 

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