Vol. 13. No. 2
Fall 2003
Soprano Celena Shafer is soaring to new heights in the world of opera.

Celena Shafer BMUS'97 MMUS'99 doesn't look like the stereotypical opera singer. Petite, genial, and radiating youth, she seems more a backpacking student than cosseted coloratura. It's difficult to imagine that she will ever don a set of Wagnerian horns.

Yet, at 28, Shafer has already made a smashing debut onto the world's operatic stage. She has had major roles with companies around the country, including Sweeney Todd with the Lyric Opera of Chicago; Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream with the Pittsburgh Opera; Die Fledermaus with the Vancouver Opera—and, most recently, with the Utah Opera Company; Le Nozze di Figaro with the Dallas Opera; La Bohème with the Minnesota Opera; Rigoletto with the Welsh National Opera; and Mozart's Mitridate with the Santa Fe Opera, for which she won an outstanding apprentice award. She has had orchestral performances in Handel's Messiah with the Phoenix Symphony, Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy with the Kansas City Symphony, and, most recently, Bach's Ein Deutsches Requiem with the Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City. She has also given a string of recitals and made a television appearance in France, reprising an aria she sang in Joseph Merrick dit L'Elephant Man, a performance recording cited by Opera News as one of the "Best of the Year" in 2001.

Shafer's burgeoning talent was recognized in 2002 when she received the ARIA award (Awards Recognizing Individual Artistry), an honor given annually by The Thomas Foundation to three American vocal artists of "exceptional ability and undeniable promise."

Music professor Robert Breault, Shafer's teacher and mentor at the U, says, "The ARIA Award is one of the most prestigious a young singer can receive. Celena's a standout in a very competitive business. A lot of hype has been written about various singers, but in Celena's case, the hype doesn't keep up with the reality."

Shafer"s meteoric rise in the world of opera begs the question: how did she get from here to there and in such a short time?

As a youngster growing up in Centerville, Utah, Shafer says she "used to sing songs around the house," repeating what she'd heard in Sunday school. "I sang louder than all the other kids, too," she laughs. Musically adept, she learned to play the ukulele and the piano (under the Suzuki "listening" method) and recorded herself on tape. Then, in sixth grade, she recalls hearing a madrigal group and thinking, "I could be cool like them," and begged her mother for voice lessons, which she got. "At first I sang in a nice little voice," she recalls, "until one day I said to my teacher, "I have this other sound you should hear," and turned up the volume. She cultivated that operatic sound in junior high school, where she sang in the choir and in a madrigal group. It was there that she was encouraged by her teachers to pursue singing as a career.

Shafer at 17 singing with "Salute to Youth."

At age 17, Shafer won a vocal competition at the Utah State Fair, which led to an audition with the Utah Symphony under the baton of Maestro Joseph Silverstein. She was selected as a vocalist in the "Salute to Youth" concert—"a great service for young musicians in Utah," she comments—where she had the opportunity to "work with a real conductor and a professional orchestra."

After graduating from Viewmont High School, she enrolled at the University of Utah on the advice of her teacher, Heidi McKay, who recommended that Shafer study with noted voice teacher JoAnn Ottley ex'57. "It's very important to choose a teacher who is right for you," says Shafer, "and it was a good match. She gave me an excellent foundation."

Says Ottley: "Celena came to me just out of high school, young but with an incredible drive, which we worked hard to tame. I told her to go home and put on her jeans and play for the summer. I needed her to cool down to find those high notes." And find them she did. Ottley confirms that Shafer possesses what Ardean Watts MA'60, professor emeritus of music, calls "the singer package," that is, the physical stamina, imagination, character, ear for language, musicality, sex appeal—and, of course, voice—necessary to be successful in a demanding profession.

"Celena has all of these characteristics, including that astonishing drive," says Ottley. "There are the 'ones,' and then there are the '999s,' and Celena is a 'one—one of the five best students I've had over 40 years of teaching.'

According to Breault, what separates Shafer from other singers is that "she has a God-given voice, a tremendous instrument. She is also one of the hardest workers I've ever known, always going well beyond what she was asked to do," he says. Plus, he adds, "she has a natural curiosity, not just about music but about everything. She enrolled in a music program every summer and never left without having made major discoveries."

The demands on an opera singer are many, says Breault, noting that the approach to opera has changed, as has the appearance of the vocalists. Gone are the days of rotund, immobile singers who used to "park and bark." Instead, says Breault, "You have to be able to do about 20 things at once—follow the conductor, act, be athletic, and heft a heavy, cumbersome costume around the stage for three hours. You also have to be a good musician, adept at languages, and a natural communicator. And you must have technique."

In short, performing in opera isn't for the faint of heart.

In spite of the pressures, both Ottley and Breault confirm that Shafer is willing, eager, and a very pleasant person to be around—in short, the opposite of a demanding diva. "She's an anti-diva," says Breault. "She's an undiva," counters Ottley.

"Anti" or "un," Shafer is clearly riding high in a challenging profession.

In spite of—or perhaps because of—her rapid ascent, Shafer is considering slowing things down a bit. For the past two years, she and her husband Brad BMUS’99, a music educator whom she “re-met” at the U (they had known each other before), have had no fixed home, although they periodically use her parents’ basement apartment in Centerville as a base. While living out of a suitcase hasn’t been easy, “Brad has been incredibly supportive,” she says.

Looking back down the road taken, Shafer says she is grateful to the U for the excellent training she received, which was instrumental in helping her build her career.

“The U was really a good thing for me,” she says, and “the School of Music is great. I only feel sorry that I left before the renovation of Gardner Hall was completed.” When she was a student, the music department was all over campus, she says. One of her courses was in the Cowles (mathematics) building, “but that didn’t cause the level of instruction to decrease,” she confirms. “Our professors just had to be more creative.”

Shafer also speaks highly of other departments, such as languages, where she studied Italian (“intensively”), French, and German. “I’m grateful that I came to a school that gave me a liberal education. As a performer, you need to be well rounded, to know about the world. You’re able to bring that knowledge to your art and music, and to the stage. It makes you a better performer.”

Shafer admits that singing is a “high anxiety” career—“you’re always worried about your voice”—although she’s never really suffered stage fright. “You have to be a little nervous to perform well,” she says.

She describes her voice as “light lyric with a coloratura extension.” Those less knowledgeable of the language of music would perhaps describe it as transcendent—a voice that soars to the heights, far above the 999s.

—Linda Marion is managing editor of Continuum.