When a young BYU graduate finds herself propelled to the top of the opera world, she faces doubts and fears and a performance for a prince.
A tall, strawberry blonde, distressed American woman trudged through the streets of London on her way to a final dress rehearsal for The Marriage of Figaro. Within days the opera would open at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, and Rachel Willis-Sørensen (BM ’08, MM ’09) had been cast in the coveted role of the countess. To land such a role—and launch her international career—at one of the world’s finest opera establishments was a testament to her talent and preparation, yet Willis-Sørensen was plagued with doubt. Despite her accomplishments, she feared she might not be able to sing to the standard required by the Royal Opera.
A Song on Her Breath
Willis wasn’t always recognized for her vocal prowess. “As a teenager I got so many comments and became so embarrassed by my voice that I just stopped singing for a while,” Willis-Sørensen explains. “Despite my intentions, I could not stay quiet. Singing is like breathing to me.”
Willis-Sørensen ultimately found her niche among the opera faculty at BYU, who helped refine her talent. “I learned at BYU to be proud of the elements of my [voice’s] unique timbre, color, shape, and sound, and I had professors who encouraged me to strive for the top of the opera world.”
Willis-Sørensen said that taking voice lessons with Professor Darrell G. Babidge (MM ’99) was a major turning point for her. “He told me I needed to work on technique and stop using tricks. He said, ‘Why do you sing in a little way when you have a really big voice?’ He opened my world. Whenever I can get to Provo, I take a lesson from him.”
After great success in various voice competitions with the Metropolitan Opera, and Eleanor McCollum Competition for Young Voices, Willis-Sørensen went to the 2011 Hans Gabor Belvedere Singing Competition in Vienna, Austria. Among the Belvedere jurors was Covent Garden casting director Peter Katona. “Rachel was the clear and unanimous winner at the Belvedere, with a most compelling vocal performance of demanding repertory,” Katona says. Willis-Sørensen took first place in both the opera and operetta divisions of the competition out of 3,000 vocalists. Upon hearing Willis-Sørensen’s performance, Katona thought he had heard a voice fit for the Royal Opera.
Unknown to Willis-Sørensen, the Royal Opera was looking for a countess for The Marriage of Figaro. “I was tempted to give her that chance and try her out in our house as soon as possible. Her vocal performance had been so totally confident in all stages of the competition,” said Katona. “I did not see the slightest risk in selecting her.”
Willis-Sørensen began Marriage of Figaro rehearsals surrounded by singers she had long held in awe. And like a princess plucked from relative obscurity, Willis-Sørensen was poked and prodded and refashioned—and almost lost faith in her abilities.
“I felt completely out of my element,” she says. “A tiny fish in an enormous pond, I was still playing a huge role. I had tense and draining sessions with the maestro and the director. My inexperience was of great concern. Although my Italian is quite good, the maestro worried about that; he needed it to be meticulous for 300 pages of music. The director had me sing an entire rehearsal without using my hands, 20 people with clipboards kept telling me what to do, and everyone hoped they had not made a mistake hiring an unknown. I was beyond nervous and kept asking my husband, Rasmus, for blessings.”
Centered on Stage
When the moment finally arrived for her international debut, it was the stuff of dreams.
For one of the performances, Willis-Sørensen’s parents and several family members, teachers, and friends flew in from the United States to see her. Not one to disappoint, Willis-Sørensen performed masterfully.
To top her fairytale evening, Willis-Sørensen realized partway through the performance that she was literally in the presence of royalty. Prince Charles, and his wife, Camilla, duchess of Cornwall, were attending the opera that evening. “During the opera I had seen them clapping above their heads and yelling, ‘Bravo,’” Willis-Sørensen says. Pleased with the performance, the future king of Great Britain invited Willis-Sørensen and a few other stars to his third-balcony royal box following the show.
Not only did Willis-Sørensen charm the royalty, she also gained the praise of British critics. David Benedict from The Arts Desk wrote, “Much of the excitement comes via the countess, bold-voiced Rachel Willis-Sørensen makes an outstanding debut.”
More accolades followed. In June 2012 she performed Fiordiligi in Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and was praised in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a voice that is “big, rich, well-tuned and consistent from the top to the bottom of her impressively wide range. Her two great arias . . . were both showstoppers.”
“Rachel has been very blessed to find herself at the top tiers of the opera world so quickly,” says Babidge. “Many talented singers spend years trying to establish themselves in this career.”
Since her international debut at Covent Garden, Willis-Sørensen’s career has flourished. She has performed with the Vienna State Opera, Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, along with multiple other performances in Rome and Berlin.
Willis-Sørensen fans can currently find her back in Covent Garden performing for the Royal Opera through March of 2017. Scheduled to perform in Scotland, New York and Zurich this year, Rachel Willis-Sørensen will continue to delight audiences wherever she sings.
—Charlene Renberg Winters (BA ’73, MA ’96), BYU Magazine, Fall 2012
—Adapted by Madeline Buhman (BA '18)