John Richardson was a sophomore at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, when he auditioned for several choirs and music groups. He was dismissed by them all.
Despite his disappointment, the aspiring singer found hope in one professor’s suggestion to take voice lessons.
Affording the lessons required some earnest pleading with his father, but Richardson prevailed and soon discovered a talent and passion for singing.
Over the past year, the 24-year-old has started living his dream, and he takes great delight in a person’s reaction when he tells them about his unique line of work.
Double takes and puzzled expressions are common when the active Latter-day Saint explains that he is employed as a cantor who sings sacred liturgical music at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City — not exactly a typical college student job. “Wait, wait, wait,” most people say, “tell me about that.”
“It always catches people off guard,” the 24-year-old said with a wide grin.
What is a cantor?
A cantor at the Cathedral of the Madeleine is a paid professional singer who leads the congregation in worship through music. Richardson was hired in May 2020 and is one of four adult cantors at the cathedral, where he sings at two Masses every other weekend, including Spanish Masses, as well as weddings, funerals and other events.
Not only has the experience furthered his chosen career path, but it has also strengthened Richardson’s faith as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
How he got the job and why he’s passionate about it is an interesting story.
Symphonies and organs
Richardson’s musical roots begin with his father, an organist who trained at BYU with Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square organist Richard Elliott.
Richardson’s father often turned on a symphony while the family engaged in Saturday house chores and encouraged his children to “pay attention to the music and see what’s going on,” his son said.
“That was my Saturday routine,” Richardson said. “So I got into this groove of listening to classical music with my parents and gained that appreciation. From a young age I could tell that choir music was my particular love. I was drawn to it.”
Richardson said he was “forced” to take piano lessons as a youth. As a freshman at BYU, he took organ lessons because his father was willing to pay for them. But it wasn’t his passion.
“Hated it,” he said. “The worst hour of every day. ... It was just so painful. I was so bad.”
What Richardson did like was listening to music. He paid $30 for BYU’s School of Music pass and attended almost every single concert performance on campus. The more he watched and listened to the choirs, the more he wanted to perform with them.
After auditioning for the BYU Men’s Chorus, Richardson said director Rosalind Hall must have detected some raw ability because she recommended he take voice lessons.
Richardson begged his father to let him switch from organ lessons to voice lessons. “I know you said you would only pay for organ lessons and anything else I’d have to pay myself, but just pay for one semester of voice lessons,” the college student said.
His father agreed and Richardson embraced the opportunity, practicing for an hour and a half each day when he was only asked to practice 30 minutes. While playing the organ felt like beating his head against the wall, time raced by when he singing. The change was “magical.”
“Honestly, that’s what changed it all,” Richardson said. “It’s amazing how much coaching helps. It’s not so much that they have all these hidden secrets — I could have looked it up on the internet — but it’s someone helping you realize what’s going on with your own voice. People ... choose to do music because it’s magical. I found that magic in voice.”
Richardson’s musical passion was elevated when he participated in a study abroad program at the University of Cambridge in the summer of 2018. While there, he visited many of the historic, gothic-style chapels and listened to some of the world’s most renowned choirs. He was enthralled by the ambience of the religious history, the architecture, the artwork and illuminated candles as he listened to the liturgical, worshipful music. He returned home with a new goal.
“I have to figure out how I can do this,” he said.
Becoming a cantor
Richardson was back at BYU early in 2020 when he received an email with a job listing for a cantor at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City.
It was the opportunity Richardson had been waiting for, and although he was unfamiliar with Catholic rituals and music, he immediately requested an audition with Gabriele Terrone, the cathedral’s assistant music director and organist.
When the cathedral has a cantor opening, Terrone informs a list of voice teachers and university choral program directors along the Wasatch Front. Two or three candidates are invited to audition, with the top applicant receiving a weekend tryout.
Applicants are not required to be members of the Catholic Church. A cantor is hired based on his or her singing ability and music skills. Terrone has hired Latter-day Saint cantors before.
“We welcome singers from all over the place,” Terrone said.
Richardson thought he botched his audition and was thrilled to get a call back from Terrone. He survived the weekend tryout, accepting plenty of teaching moments, and was offered the job.
It took several weeks to learn the movements and understand Roman Catholic liturgy, but Richardson has made the most of his opportunity. He has even used the Spanish-language skills he gained as a Latter-day Saint missionary in Quito, Ecuador, while performing in Spanish Masses.
Terrone, his boss and mentor, gave the young singer high marks.
“What I really liked about working with John is his work ethic,” Terrone said with an Italian accent. “The ability to take feedback in a positive, adjusting way ... showing that he cares about it (his work) and showing that he cares about serving other people. So A-plus on that.”
“I’m a faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and I will be my whole life. But I’m very much open to anything that will bring the spirit and teach me about Jesus Christ. ... Even when I can’t go to my own church meetings, I can come here to a place of holiness and feel closer to God.” — John Richardson
Most of Richardson’s Latter-day Saint friends and family were supportive of his new job while others weren’t sure what to think about him sometimes missing his own faith’s worship services to work on the Sabbath and perform for another religion’s followers.
“It boggles their minds,” he said with a smile.
But the whole cathedral experience — donning a robe, singing sacred music to the sound of a pounding organ, surrounded by stained-glass windows and religious artwork — has greatly strengthened Richardson’s faith in Jesus Christ. It has taught him something about the meaning of being a true Christian and helped him to feel more love for a global Christian community.
“I’m a faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and I will be my whole life,” he said. “But I’m very much open to anything that will bring the spirit and teach me about Jesus Christ. ... Even when I can’t go to my own church meetings, I can come here to a place of holiness and feel closer to God.”
The musical journey continues
After all that, Richardson’s days of singing at the Cathedral of the Madeleine are numbered.
Richardson graduated from BYU in April. He and his wife are headed to England in September where he will pursue a master’s degree in history at the University of Oxford with a choral scholarship to sing in the Queen’s College Choir.
He will miss singing solos in the cathedral and the resonating sound produced in grand acoustical space. But he’s also excited for the next step in his musical journey.
“As much as I’ve loved being a cantor, being a member of an ensemble will make me very happy,” Richardson said.