When Sofia Rohlman ‘20 was very young, her grandfather would introduce her to opera singers. He’d tell her she could pursue opera if she wanted to. At her Catholic elementary school, she’d sing in weekly mass. In second grade, she joined a community choir, the first of so many she “can’t even count them anymore.”
Years of study and motivation from family had led her here. In 2018, Sofia was invited by Opera Carolina to sit in on a rehearsal for their upcoming production of Carmen. The rehearsal space was a gymnasium Uptown, right around the corner from St. Peter’s. She listened to the leads sing.
“There was, of course, no orchestra, no nothing. It was just their raw, unfiltered voice. I sat there crying because it was so beautiful,” Sofia said.
When she walked out of that rehearsal, she turned to her mother. She knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life.
“I told her I wanted to be a music major, and she nearly fainted.”
From that moment, she’s done everything she can to take in opera, including pursuit of a vocal performance and music industry studies double major at Appalachian State University, where she enrolled this fall.
“I left that rehearsal knowing exactly what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it and where I wanted to go and everything,” she said.
She got an internship at Opera Carolina, learning from their singers, from stagehands and producers how shows run backstage, and how the organization is marketed. She even worked on a project to introduce young kids to opera, helping produce a special showing for children that ultimately was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, but a subject she remains passionate about.
“It’s such a beautiful art form, and you talk to little kids and they say they enjoy it, but getting it out there, in front of them, is so difficult.”
That commitment to introducing young people to music generally, and opera specifically, likely stems from her own introductions to art at a young age. Like her grandfather for her, she carries on that effort, teaching her cousins, six and eight, about opera.
“We’re not educating enough and we’re not showing enough. The kids you think could have that interest, they don’t find that fire to pursue it, or even learn more about it or enjoy it,” Rohlman said. “I’ll show my cousins these operas, they’ll be like “Whoa, how are they doing that?”
Now, when she comes to visit, they’ll ask her to sing pieces they’ve discovered, having the music ready for her to sing to them.
Making music tangible for students is at the core of a Choir School experience, and one of the reasons Sofia sought out the program. Other ensembles had overlooked her, and she felt she’d eclipsed the repertoire and musical knowledge of her peers in other programs. The challenging musical environment at The Choir School was exactly what she was searching for and she knew even before she auditioned.
Sofia and her mother, Maria Velez, now a Choir School board member, attended a Spring Concert a few months before she joined The MasterSingers. Closing the program was a Moses Hogan arranged spiritual, “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord.”
“I was just so astonished. How are these little tiny kids singing Moses Hogan? It’s baffling,” Rohlman said.
She was in. She was ready for the challenge. The challenge of singing in a mixed-voice ensemble for the first time, the challenge of blending better with other voices, improving her ear training, and for a more difficult repertoire.
From the archives
Listen to the piece that inspired Sofia Rohlman to join The Choir School, Moses Hogan’s “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord,” from the 2018 Spring Concert.
“It’s a different way of singing and I had to adjust. It helped me reach another level of musicianship that I really really wanted.”
She also found opportunities to expand her skills as a soloist, in addition to her work in the ensemble. She was featured with her MasterSingers classmate Chelsea DeLapp as soloist on the 2019 fall concert program in a piece that almost didn’t come together.
“When we had our first rehearsal, I remember picking this piece up and I looked at it and I said, I’m going to have this solo.
“It took [me and Chelsea] so long to get the harmonies correct. We just had such a hard time with it. Right before the concert, she and I were like, “We’re going to get it” because we hadn’t gotten it before. And on stage, we finally got it correct for the first time and we were crying. It was the most uplifting experience I had ever felt,” she said.
The Choir School built the skills in Sofia to tackle that piece, a haunting number by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds. And the Choir School built skills beyond music, too.
“I’ve been a leader with the different choirs I’ve been in, so I’ve been able to take that kind of leadership to group projects in school. I’ve learned how to work better with people. It’s helped me be a more personable person and a leader in my community.”
She says music taught her bravery, well earned when the focus of a concert program turns to you as a soloist. And she appreciates that music is always there for musicians and non-musicians alike.
“Everybody can relate to music. It’s helped me get through all kinds of things in my life. I’ve been able to depend on it. If I’m stressed, I listen to music. If I’m happy, I listen to music. If I need to zone out for three hours, I listen to music. It’s just always there.”
As for what’s next, she, of course, knows the road ahead. After five years of undergraduate education, she plans to work and then pursue a master’s degree at Indiana University Bloomington, and from there, land in a city and join their opera program, hopefully as a performer and administrator. The music will always be with her on the journey, everything from operas with her grandfather, to solos at The Choir School.
“I’ve always had it in my head that I could be an opera singer — if I work hard enough, if I know the right people, I will be an opera singer just like the ones my grandfather showed me,” Sofia says.
“And I can make him proud.”
Story by Geoff Yost ’08