NEW YORK CITY
Rachel Willis-Sørensen vividly recalls praying backstage during the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions four years ago that she would someday be invited to sing again in that magnificent hall.
The soprano, a native of Richland, Washington, and a BYU graduate with a master’s in vocal performance, was named one of five equal winners of that competition in March 2010, after a disappointing “learning experience” in the 2008 finals. With a lot of hard work and prayer, she said, she was much better prepared the second time.
She recently returned to the Met stage, making her debut in a principal role as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro during its December run. The Dec. 20 performance of Mozart’s Italian comic opera was broadcast live across the U.S. and worldwide over the Met’s Sirius XM channel. Sister Willis-Sørensen was interviewed on air during intermission, and the host mentioned she was “singing for three” — a reference to the fact that she is expecting twins in June.
She and her husband, Rasmus Sørensen, also have a 16-month-old daughter, Lydia, who has been in New York with them for the month.
The pregnancy means extra challenges have come along with the opportunity to sing a principal role at the Met, as the 30-year-old singer has fought to keep her energy up and nausea at bay. A New York Times reviewer who found “the creaminess of her tone … attractive … even if its texture occasionally wavered” likely wasn’t aware that the “rising soprano,” as he called her, had felt like throwing up during an aria.
Other than those moments, the experience has been “the perfect realization of my dream for the Met,” she said, prior to the Dec. 15 performance. “The Lord has been helping me.” The opening night of “Figaro,” she recalled, “I cried a heartfelt prayer, thanking Him for the opportunity.”
Sister Willis-Sørensen said she has felt God’s help frequently as she’s pursued her dreams and goals. In August 2014 she won first place and two other prizes at Placido Domigo’s international Operalia competition held in Los Angeles, with the world-renowned tenor in attendance at the finals. The Operalia program, known to launch the careers of several young opera stars, filmed a documentary on the soprano and the Sørensen family while they were in New York.
Sister Willis-Sørensen also won the Belvedere competition in Vienna in 2011 and Houston Grand Opera’s in 2009. “I didn’t even believe it the first time I won!” she said.
And the preparation has not become easier. “Every time you do a competition, the saying goes, it takes five years off your life,” she quipped.
Earlier successes led to Santa Fe and Houston’s apprentice programs, appearances with the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, San Francisco Opera, the Vienna State Opera and a current contract with Semperoper, based in Dresden, Germany, where the family now lives. They are members of the Dresden Ward, Dresden Germany Stake.
Dresden lies in what was then the Hamburg Mission, where both the singer and her future husband, from Denmark, were serving as missionaries from 2005-2007. Being able to express herself well in German has come in handy for singing Wagner, she noted.
One critic of a previous production praised her “impressively wide range” and a voice that is “big, rich, well-tuned and consistent from top to bottom.”
Sister Willis-Sørensen sings the praises of a support system which includes her husband (“We have a mutually supportive relationship”) and extended family as well as her BYU voice professor Darrell Babidge. He has continued to coach her long-distance and Skypes for a face-to-face warm-up before each performance.
Passionate about music, voice and opera, the animated Willis-Sørensen spoke of earning respect among her peers. “It’s incredibly important for me to maintain integrity,” she said. “I’d rather get fired than compromise myself. I want Heavenly Father to be pleased with me.”
The experience of performing a major role at the Met “has exceeded my expectations in every way,” she said. “It’s thrilling to sing at this level — a dream come true before my eyes. Heavenly Father’s given me so many blessings!”
As for singing the role of Countess Almaviva, “She has the most beautiful pieces in the show and the audience just loves her magnanimous, forgiving character. It’s a good position to be in!”