BWW Interviews: Rachel Willis-Sørensen Talks Her Career, Houston Grand Opera's DON GIOVANNI, and the Best Aspects of Performing Opera
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by David Clarke
Despite being wholly busy and working on perfecting DON GIOVANNI with the Houston Grand Opera creative teams and cast, I had the pleasure of being able to spend a delightful 30 minutes with the talented and intelligent Rachel Willis-Sørensen. We discussed her career, including her impressive contest wins, preparing Donna Anna in DON GIOVANI for Houston audiences, performing in Houston, and the best aspects of being an opera performer.
Me: How did you first get started in opera?
Rachel Willis-Sørensen: I was singing a lot of contemporary styles. I did a lot of Broadway style musical theatre and jazz music. I did a lot of jazz choirs and solo jazz work in high school, and I found I was losing my voice a lot. So, I wanted to take voice lessons to get a little technique. The teacher suggested that I had a voice that was pretty well suited to opera. I was like, "What the heck is opera?" I had very little exposure, I guess. You know that opera signing orange on Sesame Street or car commercials or something. It wasn't like any part of my life. I went and saw CARMEN, and I really enjoyed it. Mostly, I think, at the end of the day, the thing that got me interested was the teacher appealing to my ego [Laughs], and saying, "Wow you have a really big larynx, like you have a really unique timber, and if you could figure out how to do this." She expressed it as "the fulfillment of the potential of the human voice" to sing without electronic amplification and be heard over a 100-piece brass orchestra. The fact that was a possibility for me was really exciting, so I just started studying it. The more I listened to it, the more I really fell in love with the music. I found all these really wonderful composers who's music really speaks to me and just this amazing dynamic humanism, you know, the expression of these deep, diverse feelings through the music in such a way that I feel is just really unique to opera. It's really explosive and exciting. I mean, you can get that from a lot of sources. For me, I just really love opera. I fell in love with it, so I pursued it. Now, I get to do it for a living and that's a huge and exciting blessing.
Me: When did you realize that you wanted to perform in opera professionally?
Rachel Willis-Sørensen: For a while, I was taking it like one step at a time. I got into music school in Utah-BYU-and I was cast like second cast, third cast, fourth cast, whatever. [Laughs] I got one performance of [LA] BOHÈME, and I was singing Musetta. Because I was not the primary cast, the costume shop had a fitting, and they gave me this old dress that didn't fit. It was way too big. They pinned it on the outside to take it in. Then came the day of my performance and nobody had taken it in, and it was still pinned on the outside. I didn't have a wig, and it was like "Ugh! Such a second hand production!" And this really nice girl actually said, "You're not looking ugly on your night." She pinned it on the inside for me, and it was really great. It's funny because it was so stressful. Then, I finally got to go on in the second act and got to sing this big aria, "Quando me'n vo'." The whole cast is on stage, and it's supposed to be at the Café Momus in Paris. It's just like this really exciting part for that character because she sings this big aria and has the whole attention of everyone on stage. It was the first time I sang with a full orchestra, and there I was in this huge theatre-maybe 2,000 seats-with my huge red dress and the whole orchestra, and it was like the first time in my life I was proportionate to the event. I'm really tall, and I have a big, loud voice. I feel, in general, like I'm too big, too much, something, but in opera it really fit. It was like everything I had was an asset, not a deficit, to my performance. It was so exciting. I just felt like this magical thrill, like I found my niche on the planet. You know, I found really where I belong. It was so exciting to want to pursue that for the rest of my life. So, that was really the moment. Singing "Quando me'n vo'" on stage in a production of LA BOHÈME is where I realized this is what I was born to do, you know.
Me: Having studied and worked at the Houston Grand Opera Studio, how does it feel to return to Houston Grand Opera as Dona Anna in DON GIOVANNI?
Rachel Willis-Sørensen: Well, that's really fun actually because I have so many friends here, so many exciting memories, and so many fun things I like to do in the city. It felt kind of like coming home, you know. Actually, I was so thrilled at the gate, when we landed, that I got a little choked up. [Laughs] A little teary. I was happy to come back to all these family-like friends that I made while I was here the first time. Also, the company has extremely high standards. It's fun to be able to work on something and get to take the time to make it what it really should be, and I know that they [Houston Grand Opera] are willing to do that. So, it's really great. It does feel nice to have made some professional milestones between leaving and coming back so that they take me seriously and believe that it's going to work out for me. I think they always believed in me. That was why they gave me the chance in the first place, but to have it kind of come to fruition, to have good things happen, to have other people acknowledge me and that, you know, I might have a career. So, it's exciting to come back and have people hail you like a little hero. [Laughs] That's nice.
Me: Are you and Donna Anna alike in any way?
Rachel Willis-Sørensen: No! [Laughs] Not at all. [Pauses] This is kind of a tough call because people seem to want a really elegant and regal aesthetic for this character, but I personally have a problem with that. She's raped, or almost raped. Somehow, there's a big, traumatic event that takes place during the overture with the drumbeat or during the first bit, when Leporello's singing. We don't see it, and we don't really know, except that she describes it later. And, in my opinion, there is no duplicitous music. I think Mozart just intended for her to be telling the truth. So, in my opinion, it does happen. He [Don Giovanni] tries to rape her, fails, and he runs away because maybe a servant comes in-that part's not really clear. But, then, her dad comes to save her, and he's murdered. It's really traumatic. These events would be really horrifying. I don't know that a person would be concerned with decorum in those moments, but it's interesting, I guess, people except to see a very regal, sort of ballet approach to these moments. And it seems to me that there's so much more drama than that.
I don't know. In my personal life, I don't think I'd be concerned with my posture and walking really gracefully in the moment when my father was murdered, you know. [Laughs] So, that's often an issue I have to address, but it's not so hard to play a person in your natural approach. You just have to put yourself in a different place. I guess, to me, maybe what works is to consider that she's been broken. These experiences have been so difficult, and she's not getting the support she needs from her fiancé, Don Ottavio. He keeps sort of saying that he will help, and he is actually never successfully there for her in spite of what is a really challenging emotional undertaking. I mean, she is in this bad position. It's just a double whammy, but the rape attempt would have been the most traumatic thing that ever happened to her. I sort of get the impression that her mother died in childbirth or something, sometime really early after she was born, because they never talk about the mother. She's obviously not a present figure in her life. So, her dad is her whole family. She has no siblings. And then he gets murdered. So there are these two really huge, life altering events taking place in one moment.
Then the whole opera transpires in the course of something like maybe 36 hours maximum. It's not long. So sometimes she gets a bad rap for being really depressed, but, I mean, you've got to think that 36 hours ago, by the end of the opera, her dad died. And her fiancé is already insisting that they get married the next day. You would be mad. You would say, "I need some time to mourn," which is what she says and which inevitably gets a laugh. I don't know. I mean, it's not funny to me. I can understand because it looks like she's evading him, like she doesn't want to marry him, but, you know, if you're parent was murdered and your fiancé insisted to marry you the next day, you'd probably feel it was insensitive.
Me: What do you enjoy most about preparing to play Donna Anna for Houston audiences?
Rachel Willis-Sørensen: The musical preparation has been a real thrill. Trevor Pinnock is our Maestro. He is very famous for his work with early music and accurate period instruments. He has a very different aesthetic to most other maestri I have worked with, and it's interesting to see how he wants to make the music come alive. It's really exciting. He really pushes the boundaries of convention, in terms of how we're allowed to express music dramatically-different colors and different tempi choices. It's really exciting musical preparation that has been fun and groundbreaking, and I feel will inform the way that I sing Mozart for the rest of my career.
Me: What are your favorite aspects of working with Houston Grand Opera?
Rachel Willis-Sørensen: It's great to come back home, to come back to place where I have so many acquaintances. The audience is really friendly. Actually, you know what, the city of Houston is definitely a big perk. I live in Dresden, Germany right now and it's a very different cultural situation. I don't know how to say this without sounding offensive. I mean, I like it there, don't get me wrong. People just are not very friendly. And in Houston, everyone's friendly, you know. You go to the grocery store and they call you "hun."
I think sometimes Americans are given a bad rap, like we're somehow kind of phony because we're really friendly-overtly friendly, overtly positive. It's certainly not malicious. I don't even think it's fake. It's just the fact that you have a face means that someone will greet you as such. Oh look there you are, another person. "Hey hun, how you doing?" You know, it's nice. It's actually nice. So, I'm enjoying that. The general warmth of the city. Also, the weather is nice. But, like I said, Houston Grand Opera is a place that has really high standards, so getting to participate in this art at such a high level is always a real thrill. It's good professional colleagues and I've actually also been able to make some solid friendships with people in the cast that I did not know before this production, but I guess that always happens. You know, we have a natural camaraderie being involved in such a unique process. But it's really wonderful to come back to such a warm and friendly place. It feels like a breath of fresh air.
Me: You've won the 2010 Metropolitan National Council Auditions and the 2011 Hans Gabor Belvedere Singing Competition. What have those experiences been like for you?
Rachel Willis-Sørensen: That was the best day ever. Oh gosh, really good days. It was like outrageous. I never have had the expectation of success in competition. I am of the opinion that when you do a competition, you lose five years off the end of your life [Laughs] because it's so stressful. It's like that machine from The Princess Bride, where you suck a year of your life away or whatever. That's what it feels like. It's so stressful, terrifying, and high-anxiety. So, I never enjoy it actually, at all. Although, when I did the Belvedere I was sort of in a different place because I also won in Houston in 2009. That was part of what got me the job in The Young Artists Program. I got first place in that competition. That was the first time I really had success in a big competition, and that just really blew me away. It was like the last thing I expected to happen. I didn't even bear a hope that they would say my name, and then they said my name! It was just crazy! I mean it feels like flying, really. When you're so invested, you know. At the end of the day, I've learned all you can do is your best. And what I consider to be what I want to see on the stage is what I try to bring to my performing and my singing. So, to have somebody else acknowledge that that's a worthwhile thing to add to the world is just super thrilling. The best. It's the best day. Also, it affords you many great privileges, like association with really quality talent and, I don't know how to put this, like [Pauses] attention from people who can potentially give you jobs. So, there's like a kind of a job security involved. I mean, it's just really lovely. I can only say good things. I recommend it. Winning a singing competition is definitely in the top 10 of things to do ever.
Me: Performing in Opera takes you all over the world. What are your favorite aspects of traveling and performing opera in different cities?
Rachel Willis-Sørensen: Maybe, the food. [Laughs] I love trying different kinds of food. I know that seems strange, but it's real interesting to be exposed to different ways of life and cultures. The way people communicate with one another is also really exciting to me. I actually thought, you know, in my next life or whatever, maybe I'll be a linguistics anthropologist to see how language affects culture and to see how the way people communicate affects the way they behave. That's really fascinating to me. The way different people are and try to incorporate the best elements of every culture I get to be a part of into my own personal world view, that's probably my favorite part. But I do also like the food. I like to try the different kinds of food. Different desserts, you know what I'm saying. Everywhere you go there's a new idea about what's tasty, and that's always fun to encounter, discover, and explore.
Also, another great thing is the different grand opera houses in the world, where I have been able to perform. They each have a story, and they're so beautiful. It's really exciting to think that music has been made there for a long time, or even a short time. The fact that it's like a temple of art, a holy place where you get to go and participate in this art form that means so much to me. When I sang in The Met[ropolitan Opera] Finals in 2010, singing on The Met stage, at first, I was really intimidated because I thought, "Oh my gosh! This is The Met. Everyone ever has sung here. Everyone's voice who matters to me in the history of the last hundred years has sung in this building." The actual truth is that they built it in the 60s or something. They moved from a different part of the city, but anyway. In The Met as we currently know it, many, many amazing singers have sung, and I thought, "Oh gosh, this is really intimidating," but then I decided that, at the end of the day, what I really wanted to do was just go ahead and contribute my own little part to that important room where all these prominent people sang so many times. I got to participate and be a part of it. That's really something I treasure.
Me: So far, what has been your favorite city to perform in?
Rachel Willis-Sørensen: My favorite city? Oh my gosh, what if I don't say Houston? Do I have to say Houston? [Laughs]
Me: You don't have to say Houston.
Rachel Willis-Sørensen: Maybe, I'm supposed to say Houston! Well the truth is, I really do love singing in Houston, don't get me wrong. But, my most favorite city to sing in so far is...[Pauses]. I love singing in London. I feel I have something to offer that appeals to that crowd in a specific way, and like they are really warm and they have always received me really well. That's my favorite city to sing in. Sorry, Houston! [Laughs]
Me: To date, what has been your favorite role or roles?
Rachel Willis-Sørensen: My favorite role, huh? Of Mozart roles I have interpreted, I was the Countess [Almaviva] in [LE NOZZE DI] FIGERO. Fiordiligi from COSSÌ FAN TUTE is a very, extremely close second. I love doing Elsa [of Brabant] in LOHENGRIN [by Richard Wagner], but I've yet to do it professionally. I've just covered, but it's really wonderful. I just signed my first contract with that somewhere. I Can't Say yet until they announce it. Yeah, I would say my top three are Countess in LE NOZZE DI FIGERO, Fiordiligi in COSSÌ FAN TUTE, and Elsa in LOHENGRIN.
Me: What is a dream role that you have yet to play?
Rachel Willis-Sørensen: If I had heard myself saying this a year ago, I would have thought, "That's crazy!" But now that I've participated in The Ring Cycle for the first time, and I don't if it will ever happen. I actually don't know that I have it in me to ever sing this, but I think, you know, if somehow The Planets align and somehow my throat grew by three times or something and I was able to do it, I would love to sing Brünnhilde. Brünnhilde is like this amazing dramatic journey. It's a horrible name and it has this strange association-like you think of a really super fat woman with a cone bra, horns, and a spear, right. But actually, [Richard] Wagner wrote these crazy stories about her and enables a hugely powerful emotional journey. It's very exciting, and she has to go through all these great dramatic things that I think would be great to portray. So, maybe the dream role is Brünnhilde. There's so much meat there, so much really juicy stuff to delve into. Like I said, I'm 28 years old. I'd have to put it off probably until I'm like 50. It's like so much singing that I don't even know if it's in me, but I'd love to do that someday.
Me: As a young performer, what advice would you offer to others hoping to break into the business?
Rachel Willis-Sørensen: The best advice that I would have to offer anyone is to trust their message. It's not literal. It's not like a sentence that you have to share with people, but somehow, when you sing, you impart something of yourself to the audience. This something of yourself that you impart is the message, and it's the message that only you can give. No one else, similar voice or not, can give the message. And if you believe in your message, that it's worthwhile in the world, then other people will too. That's really important.
Secondarily, just do what you want to-and this is the thing. I don't know why, but this felt really groundbreaking for me when I realized it. But, I went to the opera somewhere and I didn't like everybody. I liked some of the singers. Really, I loved what they were doing. I liked some of the acting choices. I thought, "These are great." And some, I was like, "Oh, that's not what I'd do. I'm not crazy about that." And I realized I have taste. I have taste! I got to realize that I have my own stylistic choices that I have made...[Pauses]. How do I say this? When I go to the opera and I sit in the audience, I know what I want to see and hear, and my responsibility is just to provide that. I don't have to do any more or less, and that means if I provide a product that appeals to other people and isn't my own personal choices, my own tastes, my own message, then it's not integrity. You can't necessarily look in the mirror and feel good about what you're doing. So, what you have to do as a singer, and I think this ultimately is the thing that makes people successful, is to believe in the uniqueness of your message and actually just trying to give what you would want to sew yourself. Trusting your own taste. I think it made a difference for me when I realized that.
Don't miss out on your chance to hear this prize winning voice's triumphant return to the Houston Grand Opera and Houston stages! For more information and tickets to DON GIOVANNI please visit http://www.houstongrandopera.org or call (713) 228 - 6737.
Photo courtesy of Houston Grand Opera.