“Well, this is the ultimate Christmas invitation, isn’t it?” said O’Hara, a Tony winner for the 2015 revival of “The King and I.” “I think anyone would jump at the chance. I just happen to be the lucky one this year.”
Thomas — still best known for his Emmy-winning role as John-Boy Walton in the 1970s series “The Waltons” — said that when the invitation came, “It was Christmas.”
“It is the ultimate Christmas present,” he added with a laugh. “Christmas is my thing. I've driven my family crazy over Christmas for years and years. And this is the ultimate way to celebrate it.”
O’Hara is this year’s guest artist; she’ll sing with The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square and Bells on Temple Square. Thomas is the narrator for this year’s program, which will be performed Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Conference Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Free tickets to all three performances have been distributed, but standby seating is available. People who don’t have tickets can go to the Tabernacle; they’ll be seated first-come, first-served if there are empty seats in the Conference Center.
(Those who aren’t seated at the performance will be able to watch it on a big screen in the Tabernacle.)
Both O’Hara and Thomas said they grew up listening to The Tabernacle Choir; O’Hara added that she “started out in small choirs in western Oklahoma, and never imagined something like this.”
She said she’s spoken with several friends who’ve performed with the choir — including a recent chat with Matthew Morrison (“Glee”), who sang at the 2018 Pioneer Day Concert — and they’ve all told her that “everyone’s just so nice” in Salt Lake City.
“We live in New York, and there are a lot of nice people in New York,” O’Hara said. “But not all of them.”
She’s been struck by the “unbelievable kindness and generosity and humanity” of Utahns since she arrived Wednesday. “You immediately feel well taken care of. There’s a very positive spirit and energy here.”
And they hope that carries over into the performances.
“Whatever faith you come from," Thomas said, “beautiful music is beautiful music.”
Both Thomas and O’Hara used the same word to describe the Conference Center: “astonishing.” While the 21,000-seat venue does present its own challenges, they said they’re looking forward to performing there.
“We are live-theater animals,” O’Hara said, “so we immediately feel that desire to fill up a space that might be a little impossible to fill up. But we also know that it’s being filmed by 14 cameras at different angles. … So I think it’s one of those challenges to stay intimate so that comes across on the screen. … That takes a little pressure off.”
This week’s performances are being filmed for next year’s annual television special, which will air on both PBS and BYUtv.
“You instinctively want to lift everything to fill whatever space you’re in,” Thomas said. “It has to be expansive enough to fill but intimate enough to let people in. That’s the tonal adjustment to make. But the house feels amazingly intimate for how big it is, actually.”
Maybe too intimate.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if someone says, ‘Good night, John-Boy,’” said Ron Jarrett, president of The Tabernacle Choir, quoting a familiar phrase from “The Waltons.”
“Believe me, it’ll happen,” Thomas said, with some degree of resignation.