Rachel Willis-Sørensen: The most charming thing about opera is the music itself.

RACHEL WILLIS SØRENSEN was a member of the ensemble at the Dresdner Semperoper for three years, where she sang the title role in (Die Lustige Witwe), Fiordiligi (Così fan tutte), Vitellia (La clemenza di Tito), Elettra (Idomeneo), Diemut (Feuersnot), Rosalinde (Die Fledermaus) and Mimi (La Bohème). She won first prize at the 2014 Operalia Competition in Los Angeles and at the 2011 Hans Gabor Belvedere Singing Competition, and she was a winner of the 2010 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. She holds both Bachelor and Master of Music degrees from Brigham Young University and is an alumna of the Houston Grand Opera Studio. Ms. Willis-Sørensen opens the 2021/22 season with a concert in San Francisco. This season finds her performing three roles at the Wiener Staatsoper. Her first engagement in Vienna includes her role debut as Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello, followed by a return to the role of Marguerite in Faust, and a holiday celebration performing Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus. Returning to the Semperoper Dresden, she then performs Mimì in La Bohème. In the spring, she performs the role of Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Elsa in Lohengrin at the Oper Frankfurt, and the title role in Rusalka with NDR Hamburg and Desdemona in Otello at the Bayerische Staatsoper. On the concert stage, she performs Mahler’s 2nd Symphony in Santa Cecilia, Rome, Strauss’s Vier Letzte Lieder in the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg, and in the Teatro Colón, making her South American debut, and a solo Strauss program in Paris with the Orchestre national de France. In 2021, Rachel signed a multi-record deal with Sony Classical. Her debut album, Rachel, was released on April 8th, 2022.

Hello, dear Rachel! I can’t believe this is actually happening, I am really overwhelmed. It is a great pleasure and honor to have you interviewed, for me as one of the Editors of this charming Magazine as well as a young opera singer, so I want to thank you with all my heart for this opportunity before starting.

Hi, Cristina! It’s my pleasure!

So, first of all, how was last night’s Otello at the Bayerische Staatsoper? And also, how did you feel about learning the production’s staging in such a short time?

Thank you for your question! It went really well. Better than the premiere. There are three performances and I hope we’ll keep getting better. We were not able to rehearse a lot, I am replacing Anja Harteros, so they called me not that far in advance. I only rehearsed the staging for two days. In thisparticular production you’re very often on stage doing things that are not mentioned in the libretto, when you traditionally wouldn’t be on stage. Even though it is written “DESDEMONA LEAVES”, in this production, Desdemona often stays on sage… I would have to, for example, stay on stage and put my arm on the fireplace at the exact right moment because someone else is doing the same thing at the same time, mirroring my moves, so there were lots of complicated staging details. I have to admit that before the first performance, I was a bit terrified. I begged the stage director’s assistant to come and tell me what I was supposed to do before every entrance on stage since I had such a short time to re-prepare for the role. Luckily, I have done the role before in a very traditional production so I had it in my head. I had the chance to develop a perception of what’s the psychology of this character as a basis for this role. Stage directors often like to be original, and are always coming up with new ideas…some of them work, and some of them don’t work, but often, they are so focused on their own perception of the piece without external feedback…sometimes I think that the show suffers as a consequence. I can also understand, however, because if you’re giving direction to singers who only think about their technique and are standing there without fully consideringhe dramatic aspect of a piece, that can be a challenge. This is something I sometimes observe in some singers: the predominant concern is that they sing beautifully and in a technically proficient way, and that matters more than anything else. In my opinion, both of these are kind of empty, they’re not going to result in the best product. It’s not up to me to judge someone’s motive, but it seems to me that if you care about storytelling, about connection to the audience, connection to yourself… these are the elements which will result in a better product, in my opinion. If everyone shows up to tell a story, and serve the piece as a team, then I think real magic can happen, and we can all – the audience and the performers – have a cathartic experience!

You are the first prize winner of the 2014 Operalia competition, of the 2011 Hans Gabor Belvedere Singing Competition and also a winner of the 2010 MET opera National Council Auditions. How important are the competitions in the life of a young opera singer & how were those experiences for you? 

I learnt so much during competitions and I feel that, sometimes, when you’re in a very difficult situation you learn the most. I also think that competitions are very hard emotionally. Putting yourself out there, pitted by other people can be so toxic. So I had to learn a lot of things very fast, things that have been very valuable to me throughout my career. It has nothing to do with winning, but about learning to be at peace within this contentious environment. That is the life skill that I owe to competitions. Whatever happens, if you win or not, it is worthwhile to put yourself out there in the competitions, to see what you can learn from the emotional situation that you are thrust into. I wouldn’t have been a successful professional if it weren’t for competitions, because it is the cheapest way to access lots of people in the business. If you pay your own money to fly to audition for one house, you invest a lot of money and time… and it can work out or not. There are so many theaters, you can’t do this for every single theater in the world. Belvedere, for example, was like doing an audition for 16 theaters at the same time. It’s efficient…on the other hand, if you do a bad job, you blew 16 auditions. The pressure is exquisite. I used to say that every time you do a singing competition it takes 5 years of your life (laughs). It’s too stressful. I don’t do that anymore.

Read the entire interview here, in the 4th/2022 issue of OPERA Charm Magazine.

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