Beverly Sills had The Ed Sullivan Show. Kiri Te Kanawa had that royal wedding. For the American soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen, the moment of inflection could come on July 8 in Berlin, at the 20,000-seat, open-air Waldbühne, when she joins her frequent colleague the superstar tenor Jonas Kaufmann in the kind of greatest-operatic-hits special that European producers package like rock lollapaloozas.
She’s ready. Wins at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2010 and Plácido Domingo’s Operalia in 2014 swept Willis-Sørensen to the majors, where she has gone from strength to strength. Honey blonde with eyes of cornflower blue, nearly six feet tall in her stocking feet, she bestrides the boards like a youthful Valkyrie, towering over many a scene partner (though not Kaufmann). But what truly validates the package is Willis-Sørensen’s lustrous soprano, pulsing with ardent vibrato. On her debut solo recordings—a wide-ranging potpourri of favorite arias and a Richard Strauss anthology built around the Four Last Songs, both on the Sony label—it’s nothing technical that captivates but the sheer flood of emotion. In voice and presence, Willis-Sørensen lends Golden Age glamour the fresh bloom of the here and now.
“Thank you for that very kind compliment!,” Willis-Sørensen wrote recently from the road. “I believe the purpose of technique is to draw all the attention away from it. I see it as my job to tell the story above all else, and that’s usually what’s commanding most of my attention during a performance.”
Matthew Gurewitsch: The legendary 20th-century soprano Leonie Rysanek once told me she felt “so naked” singing concerts. She much preferred having the protective coloring of a character. Can you relate to that?
Rachel Willis-Sørensen: Completely. But even covered by a character, I am still expressing some part of myself!
M.G.: Preparing a new role, where do you start?
R.W.-S.: I always start with the story. Sometimes my interpretation of the words takes me one direction while the composer was taken a different way. I really love trying to add both together to get a nuanced, honest presentation.
M.G.: I’m told a director once complained that you “just wanted to play your character as written”—as opposed to layering on lots of manufactured extra spin.
R.W.-S.: Look, directors have a massive and nearly impossible job to do. They suffer under many competing pressures which I as a little singer never even have to think about. In my opinion, everyone involved in an artistic project should honor the source material. I have absolutely nothing against telling a story a new way or finding unplumbed elements, as long as it is done in a respectful way.
M.G.: You sing lots of Mozart and Richard Strauss, which seems a very natural niche, but also plenty of Verdi, with Wagner in your mix, too. Are you a generalist at heart?
R.W.-S.: My love of opera spreads widely across many composers, so I enjoy keeping my repertoire varied! Diversifying your repertoire can contribute to your vocal longevity. I like the broadness of Renée Fleming’s or Jonas Kaufmann’s career choices. As long as you are singing in a healthy way, you really can do quite a lot with the human voice.
M.G.: Is there a difference for you between European and American audiences?
R.W.-S.: Yes! American audiences tend to be very audibly enthusiastic but not for very long. Whereas many audiences in Europe show enthusiasm with length of applause rather than volume. But the warmest reception I have ever enjoyed was definitely in Buenos Aires.
M.G.: How hard is it to find tenors in the top echelon who are also tall enough for you?
R.W.-S.: There are only, like, one or two, so it’s rough going! I sang La Bohème with Evan LeRoy Johnson once, and he is six foot seven. That time I really was La Piccina, “the little girl,” as the libretto says! But it doesn’t really matter if I’m taller. What matters so much more is energy. I am happy to perform with anyone with big energy!
M.G.: Is there a dream role you haven’t touched yet?
R.W.-S.: Norma! It’s my Everest.
Rachel Willis-Sørensen will perform with Jonas Kaufmann at the Waldbühne, in Berlin, on July 8
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL.He lives in Hawaii