Gianfranco Vizzini of South Africa has watched the The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square perform on television.
“And now to be here,” he said, “and know that somebody is actually conducting you and you’re looking from the other perspective” from the choir seats in the Conference Center — it’s kind of remarkable.
“It’s kind of like a dream come true to be on the flip side of this movie, this amazing adventure,” Vizzini said in an interview prior to the October 2023 general conference.
He was one of 10 vocalists from eight countries and territories who came to Salt Lake City to sing with the 360-voice Tabernacle Choir for the October 2023 general conference. They sang Sept. 30-Oct. 1 in the Saturday morning session and the two Sunday sessions as part of a pilot program to help support the choir’s expanded global mission.
The singers are: Idaliz Santiago of Puerto Rico, who sings second soprano; Estaban Ojeda of Puerto Rico, who sings baritone; Miguel Rodriguez of Puerto Rico, who sings second bass; Yanina Murga of Ecuador, who sings first alto; Vizzini of Johannesburg, South Africa, who sings second tenor; Sundae Mae Indino of the Philippines, who sings first soprano; Hikari Harvey of Japan, who sings second soprano; JinHyoung Park of South Korea, who sings second tenor; Aaron Wi-Repa of New Zealand, who sings second bass; and Tin Kin “Tom” Lam of Hong Kong, who sings second tenor.
Many of them said it has been a dream of theirs to sing in-person with the Tabernacle Choir, but they live beyond the required 100-mile radius of Salt Lake City.
Each went through an adapted version of the choir’s monthslong four-phase audition process, including submitting vocal recordings, musical and aural skills assessment and an audition with the choir’s directors. Additionally, each of the international singers had to be recommended by their area leadership for participation prior to beginning the process. Once in Salt Lake City, they had a condensed version of the 16-week Choir School as they prepared to sing with the choir.
In addition, they had to be proficient in English and be able to travel to the U.S.
Murga, who is a mezzo-soprano opera singer in Ecuador, said while she felt nervous during the auditions, including meeting the conductors, she realized it was different from other auditions.
“They were not only hearing your voice but the spirit that you used to sing the hymns,” Murga said. Overall, it was “a great experience.”
Since they arrived on Sept. 17, these musical missionaries were part of rehearsals and musical preparation for general conference and also met with those in the Church’s music department. Each of their name tags had the flag of their home country.
“So to say it’s been intense is an understatement,” Wi-Repa said of their time in Salt Lake City. “It’s so necessary. And we’ve loved every part of it. We want to eat it up and learn some more. It’s been really, really busy.”
Wi-Repa, of New Zealand, gained an appreciation for music listening to his father’s vinyl record collection as a young boy, and he learned guitar and piano. His wife also has a musical background, and when they got married he’s been involved the choirs she’s been part of.
“That kind of enveloped everything musical in my life in our family’s life,” he added.
The group also toured the Bishops’ Storehouse and humanitarian center on Welfare Square, the Provo Missionary Training Center and Temple Square, and they also had a presentation of the Tabernacle organ by one of the organists.
“God’s work is going on in so many ways. Music is one of the ways … we can be involved in this work,” Harvey said.
Santiago, Ojeda and Rodriguez are from different stakes in Puerto Rico, but had previously known each other through various Church choirs and musical events on the island.
“One of the things that I most appreciate about this experience is knowing these amazing people and knowing they are faithful to the Lord,” Santiago said of the other participants. She initially thought she missed the opportunity to be part of the pilot program when she first heard about it. Santiago started playing the piano when she was 9 years old and began singing in choirs in school.
She encouraged people to use their talents to share the gospel. “Our Heavenly Father loves us and we need to share the gospel with everyone else. … Just use whatever [talents] you have to share the gospel with others.”
Ojeda, of Puerto Rico, said that singing with the choir has strengthened his testimony — even as he sang with the choir in rehearsals, as they were stopping in the middle of the song to make a correction. “I do feel the Spirit so strong,” he said.
Ojeda’s father played guitar, and Ojeda studied piano and has a bachelor’s degree in music education.
Rodriguez wore a scarf as he adapted to Utah’s incoming fall weather. “It’s a marvelous thing to represent one of the parts of the world over here and show to the world that we can also be here in the same work — praising the Lord through music and cheering other artists,” he said. Rodriguez started learning to play the piano at 4 years old and started singing in choirs since he was a teenager.
The group of 10 has a camaraderie of friends that have known each other much longer than two weeks as they bantered and helped each other. They’ve each seen how singing with the choir and being part of this experience has strengthened their own testimonies.
For Harvey, who majored in vocal performance at BYU–Hawaii, the first time singing with the choir felt like being in the temple.
“I just felt like, I’m not here to just sing. … I’m here to listen to each other and try to unify and be humble and strengthen my Christlike attributes. I think that’s the most important thing for me,” Harvey said.
Park said that initially he was worried about memorizing the music. But during rehearsals when they’ve been in the loft rehearsing, he’s felt part of something so much bigger in the Restoration of the gospel and the gathering of Israel.
“I’m so excited because I’m singing with the Tabernacle Choir, which is no longer America’s choir — it’s the world’s choir,” said Park, whose father was a choir conductor and taught him how to read music. He plays the piano and also sang in choirs at BYU–Hawaii where he studied audiology and speech.
Lamb, of Hong Kong, said: “It’s also the biggest stage that we as musicians, as vocalists in the Church, could share our testimony through music.”
Lamb learned to play several instruments, including the trombone, baritone and piano, and several string instruments, and began singing in high school. He also attended BYU–Hawaii and sang in the concert choir and participated in the brass ensemble, and has also conducted community choirs. He was the piano accompanist during the Hong Kong Templerededication last year.
“So the lesson that I learned even before coming here was one of being ready for whatever opportunity that you don’t even have, but will come to you at one point in your life,” Lamb said.
Vizzini, who plays the piano and flute and still teaches piano lessons part time, said he was honored to represent South Africa.
“I want to shout on top of the mountain tops to say that South Africa is here. And that anybody can do it; embrace your differences, embrace your race, embrace your culture, and we can do it. I’m here as a result of it,” he said.
Murga, the mezzo-soprano opera singer from Ecuador, said she hopes that the youth hear about these experiences and know that they can be part of it.
Indino, who started singing and playing the piano as a young girl, was part of the group that came in April and still keeps in touch with those singers who live around the world.
Since singing with the choir in April, she’s seen more people appreciate music, especially sacred music.
“I know that the people who will listen to the songs at general conference and especially listen to the talks, too, they will find answers to their prayers,” she said. “And I’ve also had my prayers answered through the songs that we sing. And I hope that many people can experience that from their homes from our countries.”
For others who follow, Wi-Repa said, “come in, bring your talents, be prepared to learn, be prepared to grow, be prepared to change.”
More photos from rehearsal and general conference
Hosting these 10 global participants from throughout the world has been an absolute pleasure! They’re thrilled to be...