The music began last night with the opera house (in this case, a church) plunged in darkness, except for a few lights burning above the stage (the main altar). The only figure that could be seen was a conductor (Doris Mattingly) giving cues to an organist, invisible behind a screen, and a chorus, scattered in the darkness.

A low bass note from the organ rumbled like an earthquake, with fragments of melody springing from the organ like tongues of fire. Somewhere, a wordless chorus sang disjointed phrases that merged slowly into a sound that might be a wind rushing down from heaven. Figures appeared out of the darkness, dressed in modern casual clothes and making their way slowly toward the altar, where they milled about singing a clashing babel of hymns: "Ave Maria," "A Mighty Fortress," "O Holy Night," and others. Gradually, a sort of order was established, and an anonymous voice proclaimed, "These people must be drunk."

Such was the beginning and the most striking segment of "Acts II," by Alan Wittrup, a religious-theatrical piece that had its world premiere last night at St. Thomas More Cathedral in Arlington. Its subject is the first Pentecost, as narrated in the Acts of the Apostles: a crowd gathering and hearing the apostles speaking in tongues, a sermon by St. Peter in response to the charge of drunkenness, and the crowd's reaction to the sermon. The music ends with the chorus singing the "Gloria" from the mass, in a well-crafted new setting of the traditional Latin text.

The best religious music goes beyond sect and ceremony and speaks to all men in a universal language. "Acts II" does that at its beginning and end, but not in the middle section, which is devoted to Christian apologetics in a rather specialized form. It is not really an opera, and probably does not need professional singers, although it was produced for its premiere performance by the Opera Theatre of Washington. Baritone Henry Burroughs stood out among the generally good performers.

The evening opened with Debussy's moving and seldom heard cantata "The Prodigal Son," dramatically interpreted by soprano Marguerita Kris, tenor Gerald Chatlos and baritone Sterling Scroggins. All three sang well enough, but the soprano stood out, with a large, rich tone that made the cathedral reverberate impressively.