Texas Tech University

TCVPA Alumna Finds Success on Opera Stages Around the World

Amanda Castro-Crist

October 3, 2018

Rebecca Babb-Nelsen

School of Music alumna Rebecca Babb-Nelsen is a critically acclaimed, Vienna-based soprano with a list of credits spanning the globe.

Rebecca Babb-Nelsen says if someone had told her during her time at Texas Tech University she would soon be singing leading roles on some of the world's top stages, she probably wouldn't have believed them. Since graduating from the School of Music, part of the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts (TCVPA), the operatic soprano has done just that.

Rebecca as Marilyn Monroe in 'Marilyn Forever'
Photography © Johannes Ifkovits/Volksoper Wien.

Since 2012, Babb-Nelsen has been a soloist at the Vienna Volksoper opera house in Vienna, Austria. She also has performed at Austria's annual music and drama festival, the Salzburger Festspiele, at the United Kingdom's annual Glyndebourne Festival Opera, at the Teatro La Fenice opera house in Italy and with the Bavarian State Opera, the Cologne Opera, the Leipzig Opera and at the Semperoper Dresden opera house in Germany.

Her roles have included Susanna in Mozart's “The Marriage of Figaro,” Rosina in Rossini's “The Barber of Seville,” Gretel in Humperdinck's “Hansel and Gretel,” Adele in Strauss's “Die Fledermaus” (“The Bat”) and Lauretta in Puccini's “Gianni Schicchi.” This spring, she played the lead role of Marilyn Monroe in the Volksoper's European premiere of “Marilyn Forever,” followed by what she said was one of the most challenging productions of her career thus far.

“It was the title role in Alban Berg's ‘Lulu' with the Leipzig Opera,” Babb-Nelsen said. “It was my first time performing this incredibly difficult role, and I got some of the best reviews of my career up until now for the production.”

The three-act opera follows the life of the eponymous Lulu and includes themes of lust, violence and death. The role demands much of the performer, who must be able to act as well as sing. Like the reviews in German media, one of which called Babb-Nelsen “perfectly cast for this vocal, intellectual and emotional challenge,” her professors at Texas Tech have nothing but praise for her achievements.

Rebecca as Pamina in The Magic Flute at the Vienna Volksoper – Photographer Barbara Palffy
Rebecca as Pamina in The Magic Flute at the Vienna Volksoper
Photography by Barbara Palffy

“I recently followed with great pleasure her success with the title character in Alban Berg's ‘Lulu,'” said music professor Gerald Dolter. “Unless you know opera and what that role requires, you cannot truly appreciate what a triumph, what an artistic culmination, she has had this year.

“About 12 years ago, I remember her emailing me from Japan while she was on tour with the Neue Oper Wien and performing the role of Pamina in Mozart's ‘Die Zauberflöte' (‘The Magic Flute'). She mentioned that the last time she had appeared in ‘Die Zauberflöte,' she was the first genie (a supporting part) in my production at Texas Tech. Now, here she was the female lead.”

For Babb-Nelsen, the time she spent at Texas Tech and the people she studied with have been instrumental to her success. In the School of Music, Dolter and faculty members Karl Dent and John Gillas taught Babb-Nelsen about professionalism as a performer in Texas Tech Opera Theatre productions.

German professor Charles Grair and Jane Bell, then a senior director in the Office of International Affairs, helped Babb-Nelsen with the Fulbright scholarship application process that secured her spot at Vienna's University of Music and the Performing Arts and paved her way to Europe and a career as a Vienna-based opera singer.

“My wonderful professors in music and the foreign language departments had unique insight and perspective that they were kind enough to share with me, and this most certainly helped me along my way,” Babb-Nelsen said. “I can honestly say I would not be where I am now without the wonderful Texas Tech faculty who helped me find my path.”

Joining the Red Raider family

Babb-Nelsen and Babb-Tarbox at the Symphony Center in Chicago
Babb-Nelsen and Babb-Tarbox at the Symphony Center in Chicago

Originally from Albuquerque, Babb-Nelsen and her family moved to Lubbock when she and her twin sister, Michelle Babb-Tarbox, were just 10 years old. Both girls were musically gifted – Babb-Tarbox currently performs with Lubbock Moonlight Musicals and the Lubbock Community Theatre (LCT), where she recently starred as Morticia Adams in the Addams Family Musical and was awarded the LCT Bailey Award for best lead actress in 2018 – but they found themselves following different paths academically.

Babb-Tarbox focused on medicine, which eventually led her to her current positions as an assistant professor in the Department of Dermatology and the assistant dean for medical student affairs at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.

Babb-Nelsen focused on music and foreign language, initially intending on double-majoring in trumpet and voice and minoring in journalism, but eventually completing a bachelor's degree in vocal performance with a minor in German through the Honors College, followed by a master's degree in German literature.

While she chose Texas Tech because of the Presidential Scholarship she was awarded and the excellent reputations of the School of Music and TCVPA, Babb-Nelsen said it's hard to choose what part of her college experience was her favorite.

Rebecca as Violetta in La Traviata   – Photographer Barbara Palffy
Rebecca as Violetta in La Traviata
Photography by Barbara Palffy

“If I had to pick one, I would say that my favorite was working as a reporter on the Texas Tech newspaper, the Daily Toreador, and the La Ventana yearbook,” Babb-Nelsen said. “I loved my time at Texas Tech, especially everything that had to do with music, theater, the Honors College, the German department and Student Media. My favorite spot on campus is Hemmle Recital Hall, and my favorite Texas Tech tradition is, hands down, the Carol of Lights.”

Babb-Nelsen said if she had to pick a favorite “class,” it would be the University Choir. Under Ken Davis, and later John Dickson, the University Choir was more family than a required course.

“I am still friends with many of my fellow choristers and have wonderful memories of going on tour with them to New York, Los Angeles and London,” Babb-Nelsen said. “Many of us have been able to continue the tradition as members of the ‘Ken Davis Chorale,' a group of Texas Tech choir alumni who meet at regular intervals to make music together.”

During her time at Texas Tech, Babb-Nelsen also got her first chance to perform a role that she has continued to perform at various times throughout her career.

“My very first Violetta in Verdi's Italian opera ‘La Traviata' was with Texas Tech vocal professor Gerald Dolter as my Germont, one of the two male leads,” Babb-Nelsen said. “He also was the stage director of the production, and I learned so much from him. Violetta is a role that has accompanied me throughout my career and one that I will be singing in two productions next season.” 

Photography by Eric Stolkossa

Dolter, who has known Babb-Nelsen since her time at Lubbock's Coronado High School and directed her in several productions for Texas Tech Opera Theatre, said working with her in the role of Violetta was an experience he's not likely to forget. 

“She performs that role all over the world now, but her first performance was on the Allen Theatre stage, and I got to sing with her in it,” Dolter said. “She was just perfect, so strong yet vulnerable, and absolutely beautiful in every way.”

Dolter said he'd be hard pressed to find a student as attentive or talented as Babb-Nelsen. Mature beyond her years, she was a professional and the complete musical stage performer even as a student.

“I love everything she does onstage; she embodies grace,” Dolter said. “Her specialty is opera, but she is equally at home in operetta, spieloper, singspiel and musical theater. Her singing is flawless – Karl Dent had a lot to do with that – but what makes her truly unique is her approach to the music and how masterful she is at communicating intellect, emotion and raw feeling to her audience. She is capable of bringing whatever the composer or writer demands from a role and from her music. There aren't many performers who can do that.”

Rebecca as Marilyn
Photography by Eric Stolkossa

Dent, who also has known Babb-Nelsen since her high school days, said in addition to being highly intelligent, quick to learn and memorize music and capable of tackling difficult music scores, she possesses another trait important to her success.

“Rebecca is one of the kindest people I know, compassionate at the right time, gregarious when necessary, and sincere in all regards,” Dent said. “She always cared as much for her fellow singers as she did for her own success – being a good colleague is required in today's singing market. She is a very special combination of all the talents necessary to be successful in the singing world – brains, brawn, beauty and a bountiful heart.”

Making her mark abroad

Babb-Nelsen hopes the work she does will make an impact beyond the stage.  

“My biggest goals for the future are to find a way to make the world a better, fairer place, either through my music or otherwise,” Babb-Nelsen said.

Opern Welt
"This once again is proof of the theory that only an empty space can provide abundance. However: This requires actors who can fill this room. Actors like Rebecca Nelsen, the bundle of energy.

Her Lulu is no animal. Her Lulu is pure expression. She is fight, lust, ecstasy, hysteria. As an actress as well as a singer. This Lulu knows no mediocrity. She only knows extremes, because her life is so extreme. And Rebecca Nelsen embodies everything (in the truest sense of the word) with an unconditionality that demands admiration...

Excellently conceptualized, excellently portrayed."

- Jürgen Otten - Opernwelt/ August edition

After arriving in Vienna on her Fulbright scholarship, she quickly became involved in the local music scene and part of several critically acclaimed productions.

“I have a truly fantastic and eclectic group of friends there as well as my amazingly supportive husband, Eric Stoklossa, who is a fantastic operatic tenor in addition to being one of the best people I know,” Babb-Nelsen said.

Still, leaving Lubbock and the U.S. wasn't as easy as it might seem.

“I saw a quote the other day, ‘A foreign accent is a sign of bravery,' and I couldn't agree more,” Babb-Nelsen said. “It took a lot of planning, blind faith and sacrifice to uproot my life and move to Austria to pursue my dreams, but for me, it was absolutely the right choice.”

She said what she's gained from the experience far surpasses anything she may have missed out on in the process.

“My advice to students today, regardless of their field of study, would be to be open to other cultures and other ideas and to learn a foreign language,” Babb-Nelsen said. “The future is global.”

Dent, who has followed Babb-Nelsen's success, said he has no doubt her success and rise in fame will continue for years to come. He said the leading roles she has sung and will continue to sing are indicative of the respect Vienna has for her abilities.

“She is building a fine resume and is obviously well-trusted with these challenging assignments,” Dent said. “The success of opera companies is directly tied to the singers they employ, and she has become a ‘go-to' star of extreme versatility. I believe she will continue to grow in her career, will always bear and wear her Texas Tech and Lubbock affiliations proudly and will continue to put Texas Tech on the map globally.”

In the upcoming season, Babb-Nelsen will perform again in the role of Violetta, this time in Vienna and Sweden. Among her other roles are Konstanze, the female lead in Mozart's “The Abduction from the Seraglio,” which will be performed in Monte Carlo, and the roles of Eurydice in Offenbach's “Orpheus in the Underworld” and of Antonia in Offenbach's “Tales of Hoffmann,” both performed at the Vienna Volksoper.

“She met every challenge given to her, succeeded, and has continued to face every new challenge in the same way,” Dolter said. “There are many pathways her life could have taken her, but the performance career was best for her. She is able to bring all of her talents to it for the betterment of humanity.”

Like Dent, Dolter said he knows Babb-Nelsen will continue to make her mark in the world of opera. 

“I have come to believe that artistry is in every human being ever created, and I have always believed that those of us on the artistic faculty should encourage our students to trust in their own artistry by the time they leave us; our job is to identify the talent and help the student develop it,” Dolter said. “True artists have the dedication to develop it, follow where it leads them and trust in themselves. Only a few make the highest level, but there can be a place for anyone who believes and is willing to work. Rebecca had the ability and believed in herself. We should be so proud of her. She is proof that from here, it is possible.”