Rachel Willis-Sørensen, soprano

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

When I was almost 17, I joined a group voice class taught by a retired opera singer, Elaine Scherperel-Burgess, in Tri-Cities, Washington. In addition to traumatizing us with pictures of vocal polyps, she expressed to us that classical singing is the fulfilment of the potential the human instrument, and she flattered my ego by saying that I had a unique enough voice but it was possibly something I could do professionally. So, I started listening to recordings that she would let me borrow from her impressive collection, and I fell in love with the voices of Kiri Te Kanawa,  and Lucia Pop, and eventually Anna Moffo Kirsten Flagstad, Birgit Nilsson, and so many others. She would play operas for me and teach me opera plots. 

So ultimately Elaine Scherperel-Burgess is the woman who introduced me to opera, and help me see that it was something I really wanted to dedicate my life to. Certainly Darrell Babidge has had a huge impact on my career, in life personally. He was my mentor in addition to being probably the teacher that really helped me unlock my voice. I still take lessons with him occasionally, and he is a treasured friend.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Doing productions that feel contrary psychologically to the characters that I understand from studying deeply the score. I also find it to be a big responsibility to  performing a role as accurately as possible in accordance with the score, and all of the details that the composer and librettist left us. I have such great respect for their work, that it is challenging for me to accept (from myself) anything less than perfectly adhering to the details in the score. Although I think this is a good goal to have, taking this too far can be toxic…it can be a challenge to find the right balance.

Of which performances/recordings are you most proud?

I am incredibly proud of my debut solo album for Sony Classical, Rachel. It was so hard to make! Recording is a different beast entirely than performing live. Even though I always strive for perfection, when you perform live, people experience it in real time, and there’s not as much time to comb through it with a fine tooth comb. So, if you make a little mistakes, it is acceptable. But on your record, you want it to be absolutely perfect. (Maybe this is the birthplace of my toxic perfectionism!) Sempre libera is the most challenging aria I have ever worked on, and on the recording, I am so pleased with how it turned out…we weren’t able to do that many takes, but I still am happy that the coloratura is clean and that I could even do the E flat at the end. It is something I wanted to do, but wasn’t sure I could. I felt proud for being able to accomplish that…especially since it was also in the middle of a challenging time in my personal life. 

I would say a set of performances that really meant a lot to me were singing Rusalka in San Francisco five times. Every single time, I just felt I found some connection to the character that was very profound to me, and very healthy even healing somehow…even though she’s such a sad character and so lost. The whole process of preparing the role, and doing my best to present it in an honest way was just was an incredibly satisfying experience. 

Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?

This is a hard question to answer…I feel boastful! I do love singing Rusalka! I feel that I am able to do it in a way that feels really good, and it feels really well-suited to my native instrument. I love singing Verdi! It just feels so singable! Desdemona (Otello), Leonora (Il Trovatore), Violetta (La Traviata), Elena (I Vespri siciliani), Elisabeth (Don Carlo). These are the operas that I have done, and they just feel so singable. They feel so delicious to sing. 

I also feel very good singing Elsa in Lohengrin, which is really different. That was my first experience with Wagner. I also love watching this opera. Back in 2005, I believe it was, I went to see it at Seattle Opera. Jane Eaglen was Ortrud and Marie Plette was singing Elsa. They were so stunning, and I remember I was weeping in the overture. So that piece really means a lot to me. 

But I love singing so many pieces! I loved singing the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, I love singing Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, I love singing Marguerite in Faust, I love singing Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus. Whatever role I am working on at the time seems to be the one I love the most, but I would say my absolute favourites are Violetta and Rusalka. 

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

This is a great question! I deeply invested myself in stories, and trying to understand what it means to be human in a complete way. It is interesting how two people can experience the same thing and respond in two very different ways, yet they both have a sort of logic to their behaviours. Philosophising about the ways human beings interact with their environments, and how they cope with struggle, leads me to a greater sense of compassion, and a greater ability to portray characters on stage. Obviously their actions are written in, so I can’t put in my reaction, I have to ask myself, “What would the Marschallin do based on what is in the score.” So I learn about people, and discover the logic behind that behaviour. 

I read books and watch movies… all the things that help me understand various shades of the human condition improve my performing. I also spent a great deal of time with my children. It’s so sweet! They’re in school now, and they’re experiencing socialization and they have the little foibles and difficulties. They come home and tell me that someone said something that really deeply hurt me! It is interesting because as you grow you become desensitized to certain environments. But when you are a school child, everything feels like the end of the world. I watch them to rediscover this wonder about the world. Some things are so profoundly painful, and somethings are so joyous! I think as adults we sort of homogenized our experience, and we miss some of the many colours that are available to children.  

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I luckily have very passionate management that has encouraged me to go into the lyrical direction. When I am offered a role, I discuss it with my management in terms of a short-term and long-term strategy… In the beginning of our careers as singers, it is thrilling to be offered work, period, so I feel lucky to be entering the stage in my career where I can start to strategize more. Putting together a season, and making repertoire choices is challenging, however, as seasons come together so far in advance and in different stages. Ultimately, the role needs to feel fulfilling artistically and the right choice for me vocally. When adding new repertoire, I am especially careful to consider if this is the right choice. 

Do you have a favourite venue to perform in and why?

I have sung in so many wonderful places, but a recent memory that stands out is Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. The audience was so warm, and the whole experience was wonderful. I can’t t wait to go back! That being said, I love singing in Munich, New York, Vienna…I love so many places. Oh, and I also love the Copenhagen Dansk Radio Husel is particularly cool architecturally because it looks like a cave inside. I also loved singing in the Elbphilharmonie. The truth is, I will sing anywhere there is a happy audience with open hearts. That is my favourite place to be.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences? What is the classical music world not talking about and should be?

Oh my gosh it’s so kind of you to ask this question! I have a lot of thoughts about this! We need to change the focus, to be less apologetic about the art form itself, which happens, in my opinion, when we do outlandish productions that have nothing to do with the source material. A lot can be said for innovation and looking at things from a different perspective, but  it feels to me that some directors are using the opera as a vehicle to get their point across in a way that doesn’t necessarily respect the piece. Going up to a masterpiece and super imposing a different work on top of it seems to be accepted in many cases, and I frankly don’t feel that is right. Since I have such great respect for the original creators of these operas, it is hard for me to accept changing them so fundamentally in some cases. I feel the main purpose of opera is to move people, and that doesn’t always seem to be the primary motivation of directors these days. I think this fundamental change which has occurred recently in the history of opera attracts a certain operagoer, but also discourages other sectors of the audience. I have heard in person and seen comments on social media to this effect. 

Some directors also place even more focus on the physicality of a singer, rather than prioritizing their voice and artistry. This again, doesn’t necessarily serve the art-form or the audience. I don’t know of anyone that has gone to the opera and wept from being overcome by the physical beauty of a singer. The singing is what sets this apart from other art-forms. 

I think we should get to the place where we are figuring out what actually moves people, because that is what opera can really do when done correctly.

When we go about it in a somewhat apologetic sense, thinking “opera is out-dated,” and “no one cares about it,” that’s not true. Opera is expressing emotional sentiments that still exist today, so we have to find an honesty in presentation. How do we present these stories so that the audience has an emotional experience? This, I would argue, is something that opera can uniquely do because of the human voice. When the human voice enters the human ear canal of another person, and how opera uses the voice the amplify the bass frequencies, this phenomenon can be so effective for having an emotional experience. 

What is your most memorable concert experience?

A memory that sticks out is again, Buenos Aires. I just couldn’t believe the warmth of the audience. I think it has something to do with the culture of Argentina, because I also went to a restaurant with an orchestra members, and over the course of the evening (this was a very busy, big restaurant) several people had birthdays.  Whenever the friends at their respective tables begin singing happy birthday, suddenly entire restaurant with join in, in what seemed like incredibly genuine celebratory happiness for the birthday person. I was deeply moved by this and this idea of being truly happy for one another – even strangers. I think that that carried over into the way the audience received the concert that I gave, which was Strauss’ Four Last Songs.

I also sang two of the Four Last Songs for Prince (now King) Charles’ 70th birthday celebration, at Buckingham Palace with Philharmonia Orchestra, and there was a dinner after. It was a very special time. Prince Charles – of course now King Charles – said lovely things about the power of music education and how he is happy to be a patron of the Philharmonia Orchestra. It was just such a special experience. 

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

As a musician I think my definition of success is being so prepared that I am free to express myself through the vehicle of the music, without deviating from the pitches and rhythms and articulations. That’s success, when I’m prepared enough to do it really well, but I’m free enough to also really expressed myself. Those two elements are really important. 

I think it’s really important determine success by something I’m actually able to control, rather than something outside of myself. For me, that is a really important distinction to make for my mental health. For example, success isn’t having universally good reviews, or to be hired by every opera house in the world.

What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?

I think I would tell young singers and musicians that they need to work as much on their ear as they’re working on the technique. That it is a part of it. Like I was saying in the previous question, it’s important that you were able to develop your own standards so that you can live up to it. So you don’t have to ask other people how well you’re doing. You need to be the one who knows if you did what you wanted to do or not. You can have trusted people whose opinion feed into yours, but it’s really important to develop your own taste, because ultimately all you get in a coaching or training session is an approximation of somebody else’s idea and it’s gone from their own brain, it has gone through the lens through your lens and into your brain. So, you will never actually 100% able to get understand what they want. You can approximate, and it usually comes to a close, but you’re the only one who really knows, deep inside you, what you want. You can’t you can’t even communicate that in a clear enough way to be absolutely certain that other people understood it. So, when you receive criticism like that: this has already gone through a couple of lenses by the time he gets to me. Do I agree with them? If I do, how can I change what I am doing to get as close as possible to what I want to do…perhaps while taking feedback into consideration. It makes you safer in face of the criticism you have to endure in this profession.

What’s next? Where would you like to be in ten years?

Oh what a tough question! I see myself continuing to perform as much as I still am able to, and and happy to do. I see myself maintaining important friendships and, of course, the relationships with my children…but honestly, I don’t know I’m not sure! I definitely intend to deeply enjoy them. 

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

My ideal perfect happiness is to be surrounded by trusted loved ones, in a safe place, calm and sane. 

What is your most treasured possession?

My passport!

What is your present state of mind?

Surrendering to the things that I cannot control, and hopeful about a positive future. I am trying to be solutions oriented for some things that are less flowing and easy right now, and I’m and I’m really grateful for all the things that I have if I take a step back and look at everything that’s been able to happen for my career and my family I’m just really grateful I’m really grateful for the friendships that I have in I’m grateful for the life that I get to live and I’m happy to keep working towards becoming even happier all the time.

Rachel Willis-Sørensen’s new album of Strauss’ Four Last Songs, with the Gewandhausorchester and Andris Nelsons was released on 10 March 2023 on the Sony Classical label 

American soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen is known for her diverse repertoire ranging from Mozart to Wagner. A regular guest at the leading opera houses around the world, Le Monde enthused, “…the American soprano has without a doubt one of the most impressive voices in the opera world. The timbre, of marmoreal beauty, is striking, the projection telluric…” In 2021, Rachel signed a multi-record deal with Sony Classical. Her debut album was released on April 8th, 2022.

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