Rachael Wilson was mortified. The Spring Valley High School choir had just finished a song at a 2007 competition, and she’d been called out for overpowering her fellow singers.
“The judge said, ‘One singer is singing so loud,’” says Wilson. “I began to cringe. But then, instead of saying I should cool it and sing softer, this judge turned to the entire group and said, ‘You should all sing louder.’”
“That was a moment: I found my voice,” says Wilson, now a 33-year-old independent mezzo-soprano selling out the opera halls of Europe. She’ll spend this fall and early 2024 performing as Donna Elvira in Mozart’s Don Giovanni in Sweden and singing the title role in Carmen in Switzerland. Then, in August, she’ll return stateside for her American operatic debut in Don Giovanni with the Santa Fe Opera.
The big upcoming roles follow the Julliard graduate’s successful stint as a member of the ensemble of Germany’s Stuttgart State Opera from 2019-23, when her audiences were treated to her soaring voice in productions including Carmen, Das Rheingold, Le Nozze di Figaro and Vivaldi’s Juditha Triumphans, in which she played the title character. Before her move to Stuttgart, Wilson spent six years in Munich, during which her many roles included Kai in The Snow Queen and Hansel in Hansel and Gretel. She also won the prestigious Bavarian Art Prize for her performance in Oberon for the Bavarian State Opera.
Along the way, Wilson has hit the world’s great stages, including Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. She’s also made multiple recordings, including The Snow Queen, which won a Gramophone award for best contemporary recording of 2022.
Wilson has become a genuine star of the opera, but when I reach her by phone, she’s singing along to Led Zeppelin in a Munich apartment, catching a rock-’n’-roll breath in the midst of a typically busy and fractured singing schedule. One of her recent shows had her coming and going multiple times a day for rehearsals. “You rehearsed from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and then took a break. Then, you went back and either performed or rehearsed from 5 to 9 at night.” Another of the minor pitfalls of her European routine: “Everything closes at 8 p.m. I’ve had so many hungry nights because I didn’t get out of rehearsal in time to grab something at the store.”
That’s a far cry from 24-hour Vegas, where Wilson grew up in a family packed with artists and musicians. She was that kid in the elementary school choir who rushed home for private voice lessons. “My parents (Carolyn and Mike Johnson) met when they worked at the Las Vegas Review-Journal as designers. They were fun, artsy people who loved music and super supportive of me pursuing my dreams, but with no pressure. It was all my choice.”
By the time Wilson graduated from Spring Valley High, she knew that music was her future — but she had no idea which genre. She found the answer during her undergraduate years at Chapman University in Orange, California. The artist-in-residence and voice instructor was Carol Neblett, an acclaimed American operatic soprano who sang all over the world with such stars as Placido Domingo. “I didn’t know I was so into classical music until this wonderful teacher really took me under her wing and showed me everything,” Wilson says. “I was a little bit of a black sheep when it came to classical music. People study it their entire lives. I was so new to it.”
Wilson applied to 15 graduate schools, including The Julliard School, which she figured was her long shot. “I was sick the day of my audition at Julliard. I left there thinking, ‘There’s no way, but at least I tried.’”
And then the call came: “I was in California driving to class at Chapman. My phone rang and I heard, ‘This is The Julliard School. We just want to call you personally. You are one of seven who got in this year.’ I had to pull over.”
Wilson was late to choir practice that day at Chapman. “The conductor said, ‘Rachael, why are you late? It’s forbidden.’ I could barely say, ‘I’m late because I just got into Julliard.’ I said it, and all of a sudden 200 people and the conductor were clapping for me. He also excused me for being late.”
At Julliard, Wilson experienced culture shock. “Vegas and California are so chill. New York is intense,” she says. “It’s a lot of different cultures rubbing against each other.” But the school itself proved welcoming. “Julliard is not how it’s portrayed in movies, which is as this cutthroat, competitive place. I’m still good friends with all seven of us who got in that year. We held onto each other for dear life while we were there. You need each other while going through this crazy thing together. There was no room to be competitive or cruel.”
After Julliard, Wilson auditioned to work in either Munich or Torino, Italy. The deal was one opera house in each place would pick one American singer to work there for a year. She ended up in Munich. “I was able to perform a lot and have access to great coaches and teachers. It was kind of an internship. I was still being protected. It has been too good to be true.”
Wilson came to Germany “not speaking a lick of German — and soon I sang in German.” But her time in Europe came with other challenges — most notably the COVID-19 pandemic. “Weirdly, I was one of the few people who worked through most of COVID,” she says. “I did a lot of online projects, plus recordings. The rules kept changing with our live shows. We went from almost no audience to performing for 20 people in a large opera house to fuller houses now. It was very strange — you suddenly realize how much of your life is your job.”
It was a reflective time for the songstress. “I took walks and baked bread like everyone else. I also learned to utilize my time differently and stop agreeing to every offer given to me. I want to do the things I really love. I’m looking for the silver lining in that way now.”
The search will continue to take her across continents and oceans, armed with the only instrument she needs. “A voice takes a long time to develop, and it never stops developing,” she says. “Being a singer is a lifelong craft that needs endless technical, mental and physical focus and work for the entirety of a career.”
Wilson tries to return to Las Vegas whenever possible to see family and friends. The trips usually include a visit to her favorite restaurant, which, she confesses, is Blueberry Hill. “That doesn’t exist in Europe. I want my endless, refillable, watered-down American coffee and a giant plate of bacon and eggs at one in the morning. And I want to people-watch. That’s also a very American thing — and I love it.” Wilson hopes future work includes singing in her hometown. “I have a few big projects I’d like to start up in Vegas. I can imagine having a little house there.”
But if that dream comes true, don’t expect to hear strains of opera music coming from Wilson’s open patio door. “In my free time, I’m on a Springsteen kick,” she says. “I have Bruce on repeat. I love Leonard Cohen, Chavela Vargas, David Byrne and Led Zeppelin. Weirdly, I don’t listen to much opera at home. It feels like work, plus it’s such an intense experience. I’d rather dance around to Chemical Brothers.” ◆