Latter-day Saint singer wins at Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions

By her reckoning, opera soprano Rachel Willis-Sorensen has some praying to do.

The 25-year-old returned missionary and BYU graduate secured a stunning victory at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions earlier this month.

In addition to netting her $15,000, the win at the Met's annual contest has caused myriad doors to swing open for her professional future. She must now make a life-defining decision about whether to pursue her promising career in Europe or the United States. Add into the mix that her husband, Rasmus Sorensen, is a Dane who will soon be eligible for American citizenship, and it's easy to understand why she's actively soliciting spiritual guidance.

"The future is so uncertain," she reflected. "On the one hand, there are just so many paths opening before me. On the other hand, I'm going to have to be really careful with what I choose. ... I'm going to have to make things a serious matter of prayer and really decide."

Responding to adversity

The National Council Auditions are open to entrants between the ages of 20 and 30. This year, only nine contestants actually made it through district and regional competitions to perform in New York for the semifinals, held at the world-famous Metropolitan Opera House. And of the nine finalists, judges tabbed only five as equal winners.

In 2008, as a newlywed still studying at BYU, Sister Willis-Sorensen was a Cinderella semifinalist in the National Council Auditions. She admits she surprised even herself by winning the Utah district and Rocky Mountain regional competitions. The meteoric run, though, petered out in the semifinal round.

Rachel Willis-Sorensen
Rachel Willis-Sorensen Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

In the wake of the 2008 disappointment, Sister Willis-Sorensen got serious about squeezing every last ounce of ability from her considerable potential.

"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 earning her master's in vocal performance and pedagogy from BYU in 2009, she honed her craft at the Houston Grand Opera Studio. She also studied with renowned mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick — one of several prestigious coaches to help her prep her pieces for the 2010 National Council Auditions.

For the 2010 go-round, she knew exactly what to expect. As in 2008, she won both district and region to qualify for the semifinals at the Met.

"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."

Rachel Willis-Sorensen, second from right, was one of five winners at the Metropolitan Opera's National Council Audition. The finals were held March 14, 2010.
Rachel Willis-Sorensen, second from right, was one of five winners at the Metropolitan Opera's National Council Audition. The finals were held March 14, 2010. Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Singing in the National Council Auditions finals March 14, Sister Willis-Sorensen's performance included "Elsa's Dream" from Wagner's "Lohengrin" and "Come Scoglio" from Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutti." BYU professor Darrell Babidge, her former vocal teacher, attended the finals.

"It really was rewarding to see all her hard work come to this point of success," Brother 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."

Missionary blessings

As a professional opera singer, Sister Willis-Sorensen is expected to be able to operatically perform with perfect pronunciation in a swath of languages that include English, French, Italian, German, Russian and Czech. By learning German as a missionary in the Germany Hamburg Mission, she acquired the ability to emotionally internalize German-language singing parts — a skill that paid handsome dividends with her performance of the Wagner piece at the National Council Audition finals.

"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."

Looking ahead

The only thing wider than Sister Willis-Sorensen's vocal range is the spectrum of professional possibilities awaiting her.

Wherever she decides to set down roots, Sister Willis-Sorensen knows family will come first.

"I want to have a family," she said. "I've been married for two years; 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."

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