Singing is “like breathing” for Rachel Willis-Sørensen (b.1984) who is quickly becoming an international opera star with major roles across the globe.
But as a kid in Tri-Cities, WA, it was hard to find a place for her big voice. In fact, when she was a child, a teacher suggested to her mother that Rachel not sing over the others; and as a teenager, she stopped singing for a time--embarrassed by comments from people trying to control her powerful voice.
Though she performed in musical theater as a student at Hanford High School, when she went to college, she was rejected by every choir.
- “I was a little disproportionate to most art forms—I don’t know what it was--being 5’11” and not being a ballerina-- the sound of my voice, the size of me…” she remembered.
She eventually found the perfect fit in the opera department at Brigham Young University (BYU), where the faculty helped refine her ability.
- “When I found opera, all the strangeness-- all the specificity of myself, my person, fit really well. I had this earth shattering moment when I realized this is what I was born to do. This is my niche on the planet,” she explained.
It was a triumph when she returned to her hometown and made her solo debut with a Richland, WA performance at the Battelle Auditorium in 2007. She credits BYU with providing unfailing support that has been instrumental to her success.
The daughter of Bill and Luana Willis, Rachel is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS). She served a mission to the Germany Hamburg Mission and married her Danish husband, Rasmus Sørensen, in 2008. She graduated from BYU in 2009 with a master’s degree in vocal performance and pedagogy.
In 2008, Willis-Sørensen was a semifinalist in the National Council Auditions, winning the Utah district and Rocky Mountain regional competitions. Though she was eliminated in the semifinal round, the competition made her more determined than ever to develop her ability.
- "I think that I got a lot more out of not winning in 2008 than I would have out of winning," she admitted, "because I realized how much harder I had to work."
After graduation, she went to the Houston Grand Opera Studio and studied with several prestigious coaches, including renowned mezzo-soprano, Dolora Zajick, to prepare for the 2010 National Council Auditions. This time she knew what to expect--and it paid off. She was chosen as one of five equal winners of the competition.
- "I think I was just tremendously better prepared this time," she said. "I worked very hard and I prayed very hard and I just tried to do everything I possibly could to learn everything about the repertoire, and know it inside and out.
- "The funny thing is, last time when I did the competition it was based more on hope and luck. This time I think it was based more on skill. I actually had the opportunity to prepare myself. I was ready; I was really ready."
Willis-Sørensen's performance for the National Council auditions included "Come Scoglio" from Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutti" and "Elsa's Dream" from Wagner's "Lohengrin." To her advantage, she knew German from serving as a missionary. But she brought more to her performance than good pronunciation. Because she also understood the German culture, she sang the music with the genuine emotion that performers seldom capture.
- "It really means a lot to me to get to sing in a language that I learned while serving the Lord," she said. "To have a firm grasp of the language makes a tremendous difference in the way you interpret it."
Her former vocal coach, BYU professor Darrell Babidge, attended the finals.
- "It really was rewarding to see all her hard work come to this point of success," Babidge said. "Before her performance there was a buzz about her singing Wagner at such a young age with the contrast of a comedic Mozart aria, but she pulled it off successfully and won over the audience. She received the longest applause, and after she left the stage, they wouldn’t stop clapping.”
Willis-Sørensen explained how it felt to perform on the historic stage.
- “I didn’t expect this sort of magic, this feeling I got as soon as I stepped on the stage with the orchestra and just being in the house. It was absolute magic. I stood up there and I knew—this is it. I’m living my dream.”
Her parents have been overjoyed by their daughter’s accomplishments, according to Luana Willis.
- “It is an incredible thing to watch your daughter perform in a venue like the Metropolitan Opera, and then to win!” she said. “It’s hard to know how much your judgment is distorted by the bias of your parenthood, so it is thrilling to see the audience and judges love her singing as much as we do.”
In addition to winning $15,000 from the competition, Willis-Sørensen was invited to perform in the United States and Europe. In 2011, she entered the Hans Gabor Belvedere Singing Competition where she won both divisions—opera and operetta— a feat that has only happened three times in thirty years.
She has performed major roles since that time, including a countess for the Marriage of Figaro at the Royal Opera House at Covent Gardens in London. It was her first performance on an international stage, and she was terrified. She couldn’t sleep and relied heavily on priesthood blessings from her husband.
I stood on the stage and I opened my mouth in the biggest room I’ve ever sung in and felt the spirits of those predecessors…I felt all these amazing voices had sung on that very stage on those very wood panels. At first I was tempted to be totally terrified out of my mind and do badly as a result of that daunting realization, but ultimately I decided, I’m going to add my voice to this historic room.
Much to her surprise, Prince Charles attended the performance and was so impressed that he invited her and several other stars to meet him and his wife, Camilla, duchess of Cornwall, after the curtain fell.
Hers is the storybook rise to fame. In just one year Willis-Sorensen has been praised by critics, cast and audience. In addition to Covent Gardens, she has sung at the San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and the Salzburg Easter Festival. She also debuted with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 under Leonard Slatkin at the Hollywood Bowl, and appeared at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and the Gotham Chamber Opera.
She was invited to return to Covent Gardens in late 2012 and will play the role of Donna Anna in Don Giovanni in 2013 at Houston Gardens. She will also tour Scandinavia with Bryn Terfeld, a Welsh bass-baritone, for the 200th celebration of Wagner’s birth. In addition, she has accepted a three-year contract at the Semperoper opera house in Dresden, Germany.
Babidge said that because of Rachel’s acclaimed performance at Covent Gardens, she will be able to direct her own path rather than having to make compromises that many performers face as they climb the career ladder.
Despite a busy schedule and rave reviews, Willis-Sørensen wants a family and prayerfully considers her choices. She looks forward to the time they will have a family.
- "…my husband and I are looking forward to being able to have children. I don't know where we'll live, but I hope that I will be able to continue to perform. ... In 10 years, I see myself performing regularly on all the opera stages of the world."
Willis-Sorensen is amazed and humbled by the way her career is unfolding.
- To realize that my skill set fits somewhere in the world…it’s a wonderful thing to realize that there’s a place for me. To make music in a room with a full orchestra and have people hear it and hopefully have it go into their heart and have it affect them, that’s all I want…that’s all I want.
- The fact that I’ve been given opportunities to keep going down this path and keep discovering new ways of using my instrument and my life’s experiences, It’s just the greatest blessing. I’ m really having a great time.