Arts & Entertainment

She grew up in Richland. She’s returning to sing as an international star

International opera star, Rachel Willis-Sorensen, a Hanford High graduate, will perform in the Tri-Cities on May 10.
International opera star, Rachel Willis-Sorensen, a Hanford High graduate, will perform in the Tri-Cities on May 10.

A Hanford High School graduate will return to the Tri-Cities to give her first public performance since becoming an international opera star.

Rachel Willis-Sorensen, who has sung lead roles at the world’s great opera houses and at Buckingham Palace for Prince Charles, will perform a benefit concert for Tri-City Youth Choir May 10 in Pasco.

The 2002 Hanford High grad’s career as a soprano takes her around the world from her home in Salt Lake City with her husband and three children.

In December, she made her debut at the Berlin opera house as Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus. In January she sang at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in London and then at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

Her mother, Luana Willis of West Richland said she realized her daughter had musical talent when she was about 4 and she was singing “Part of your World” from Disney’s The Little Mermaid in the backseat of the car.

“All little children sing,” Willis said. “But all of a sudden I realized ‘This is not normal’. She was knocking my socks off.”

Pitch perfect soprano

Her daughter was pitch perfect and every word was correct.

The Willis family moved to the Tri-Cities when Willis-Sorensen was in seventh-grade, and she started performing in Hanford High School drama productions then as a middle school student and continued through high school.

Her mother called around to find a voice teacher, but discovered they were booked up.

It wasn’t until Willis-Sorensen was a junior in high school that she began studying with Elaine Scherperel-Burgess, a well-known former Tri-Cities vocal instructor.

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International opera star, Rachel Willis-Sorensen, a Hanford High graduate, will perform in the Tri-Cities on May 10. Photo by Simon Pauly

Her parents, Bill and Luana Willis, attended as many of her performances as possible, with her mother always wondering if each high school performance would be Willis-Sorensen’s last big role.

But her daughter’s interest did not wane.

Willis-Sorensen studied vocal performance and pedagogy at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, earning a bachelor’s degree and a master’s.

Professional singing debut

Her first major professional break was in 2010, when she competed against 1,500 young singers from across the country at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. She was one of five winners.

“With her gleaming voice, capped with big top notes, she was impressive (singing) Elsa’s Dream from Wagner’s Lohengrin and Come Scoglio from Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte,” said a review of the competition in the New York Times.

She made her international debut two years later at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and in 2014 made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera as the Countess in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro).

Her career reached a turning point in 2018 when she sang her first Verdi role in the Munich, Germany, opera house.

She had typically been sought out for Germanic opera’s but her performace in Verdi’s Les Vepres Siciliennes (The Sicilian Vespers) led to the debut of other roles in Italian opera.

She’s been described as having a “big” voice.

Opera does not use microphones, but her voice has volume that allows her to sing over the orchestra and be heard in opera houses with 4,000 seats, said her father.

Not all of the venues where she performs are large.

In May 2018 she sang at for Prince Charles’ 70th birthday celebration.

After the Tri-Cities

After her performance in the Tri-Cities, Willis-Sorensen will be performing in June with the San Francisco Opera.

“She can memorize anything,” her mother says. That includes learning the Czech words to her next opera.

It will be a bit of a return to the day when her mother first realized her daughter had exceptional musical abilities.

In San Francisco she’ll be singing the lead role in Rusalka, based on the same story that inspired The Little Mermaid.

For tickets to Willis-Sorensen’s performance in the Tri-Cities, go to rachelwillis-sorensen.com. Tickets range from $30 to $60.

Her performance will be at 7 p.m. May 10 at Faith Assembly Tri-Cities Auditorium, 1800 N. Road 72, in Pasco.

She will be accompanied by Stephen Beus, who grew up on an Othello farm, and teaches at Brigham Young University.

Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.

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