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School of Music

The Center for Latter-day Saint Arts Partners with BYU for NYC Vocal Masterclass

Acclaimed Soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen Mentors BYU Graduate Students in Manhattan

Just weeks before graduation, three vocal performance graduate students traveled to New York for a masterclass with Rachel Willis-Sørensen, a BYU alumna who has sung in some of the best-known opera houses in the world. Ellie Warner Niver, Ariana Abadia Flores and Courtney Griggs Gaspar flew to NYC with Jennifer Youngs, assistant professor in the classical vocal division of BYU’s School of Music.

The Center for Latter-day Saint Arts hosted the masterclass in conjunction with Willis-Sørensen’s performance in Carnegie Hall of “Amaranthine,” winner of the 2022 Ariel Bybee Endowment at the Center for Latter-day Saint Arts.

Glen Nelson, co-founder of the Center for Latter-day Arts, said the masterclass idea originated with Willis-Sørensen’s sense of responsibility to share what she knows.

Students benefited from both Willis-Sørensen’s feedback and the feedback of her vocal coach, Darrell Babidge, chair of Juilliard’s voice faculty and former vocal professor in BYU School of Music.

“[Willis-Sørensen] was very professional and a fantastic technician,” said Niver. “She had the details you can only have as one who has performed a role professionally.” Willis-Sørensen has performed Fiordiligi, the same role Niver did in the BYU production of “Così fan tutte,” among many others. She is known both for her Instagram posts about technique and her ability to sing diverse styles and roles.

Niver said Willis-Sørensen applied her diverse knowledge to helping students in a way that was tailored to individual talents and styles. “She helped us explore our own strengths and weaknesses in a very uplifting and constructive environment,” Niver said. “I went away knowing I have a lot to work on to make it in this field and feeling good about how much I learned.”

The Center has a dual mission to spiritually lift and provide intellectual activity that leads to a better world, which is similar to the mission of BYU. Their mission statement states,“The Center for Latter-day Saint Arts exists at the intersection of divine creativity and cultural relevance.” Nelson said the singers’ creative gift is particularly personal because their gift is one that they have always had yet have also had to develop. He said Willis-Sørensen’s technical skill has led to a large Instagram following, but the masterclass revealed musical sensitivity.

Nelson said feeling the importance of connection is part of what made the experience a distinctly Latter-day Saint one. He acknowledged that opera often has a side that is dark and tragic, but “when you have to connect and resonate and be relevant, you want to evoke thought and emotion even to the point of changing someone’s life. You want to create a life-changing experience for good.”

Niver was inspired not just by the masterclass but also by Willis-Sørensen’s performance at Carnegie Hall the next day. “You could feel the spirit when listening to the music,” Niver said. “I cried during her encore, ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,’—sung Gospel style—and thought, ‘This is what it’s all about.’ God has us in His hands, no matter who we are and what niche we’re in.”