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Thousands of people gathered in downtown Salt Lake City Thursday night for the first of three live performances of the 17th annual Christmas concert held in the Conference Center by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Orchestra at Temple Square and Bells on Temple Square. One of the world’s leading tenors, Rolando Villazón, was the featured guest artist and narrator at this year’s performances.

“Regardless of what you believe, … Christmas is a time that opens the heart; Christmas is a time that sends us towards the others,” said Villazón at a news conference in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. “And I think that’s what we need — a world that embraces each of us as human beings. We need a world that unites us. … And I think these concerts are an opportunity to do that.”

Complimentary tickets have already been distributed for the other performances that will be held on Friday and Saturday, December 9 and 10, 2016. Villazón will also join the choir for the Sunday broadcast of “Music and the Spoken Word” on December 11, which will not be ticketed.

Villazón was one of four featured soloists on the choir and orchestra’s recording of the complete oratorio of Handel’s “Messiah,” which was released earlier this year.

This is Villazón’s first visit to Utah. He was invited to join the choir while working on the “Messiah” project. The choir’s music director, Mack Wilberg, said they wanted to bring Rolando to Salt Lake City. “And the very best way to do that would be to invite him to be a part of our Christmas concert. And once again, we were delighted when he agreed to join us,” said Wilberg.

Speaking at the news conference, Villazón quipped, “I came through security. And so the person was asking for my passport and everything and said, ‘So, [what] are you here for?’ And I said, ‘I will sing with the Tabernacle Choir.’ And he says, ‘Whoa, you must be good then.’”

“It only took him about five minutes [Tuesday] night [at a rehearsal] with the choir and orchestra to get them wrapped around his finger,” said Ron Jarrett, president of the choir. “They totally love him and have accepted him as part of the choir.  He’s a wonderful person.”

Audiences were treated to some surprises at this year’s concert, including the addition of mezzo-soprano Angela Brower, who is a Latter-day Saint, and a performance by all three choir organists. “It has a very international flair to it this year,” remarked Jarrett.

Choir members have made about 300 tickets available for refugee families in the Salt Lake City area to attend the concerts.

Villazón is renowned for his performances with leading opera houses and orchestras around the world, as well as for maintaining successful careers as a stage director, novelist, illustrator and TV personality. He has also recorded more than 20 CDs and DVDs. Villazón, a native of Mexico City, speaks four languages: English, French, German and Spanish.

Wilberg elaborated, “Not only is he well known for his vocal talents, but he hosts his own television show. He’s an author, he’s a stage director; he wears many, many hats and does them all very well.”

Villazón lives in Paris with his wife, Lucia, and two children, who were in Salt Lake City for the Christmas performances before traveling to Argentina for Christmas.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is made up of 360 men and women who are accompanied by the Orchestra at Temple Square, a 200-member symphony, and the Bells on Temple Square, a 32-member handbell choir. All of them are volunteers.

“The choir’s purpose is to be ambassadors for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So therefore, we can put our music, our programming, our concert spectacular … out for everyone to enjoy freely, easily,” said Jarrett.

Their world-famous sound is under the direction of music director Mack Wilberg and associate music director Ryan Murphy.

The choir performs weekly for “Music and the Spoken Word,” the oldest continuing radio network broadcast, now in its 88th year.