Celena Shafer

Biography

After two summers as an apprentice at the Santa Fe Opera, the career of Soprano Celena Shafer was launched to critical raves as Ismene in Mozart’s Mitridate, Re di Ponto.  Anne Midgette in the New York Times wrote, “It takes the debutante Celena Shafer, an alumna of the apprentice program here, to show how it should be done, singing the Oriental princess Ismene with flair, vocal balance and great cadenzas.”  Since that breakthrough debut, Ms. Shafer has garnered acclaim for her silvery voice, fearlessly committed acting and phenomenal technique.  She spends much of her time on the concert stage and has appeared with the orchestras in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Los Angeles with leading conductors such as Christoph von Dohnanyi, Alan Gilbert, Bernard Labadie, Robert Spano, Nicholas McGegan, Kent Nagano, Donald Runnicles, Michael Tilson Thomas, David Robertson and Sir Andrew Davis.

During the 2021/2022 season she returns to the Pacific Symphony for the Mozart Requiem and debuts with the Utah Festival Opera as the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute and as the soprano soloist in Carmina Burana.

More recent highlights include performances of all-Bernstein programs with the Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional de Costa Rica, the Pacific Symphony, and the Grand Rapids Symphony all led by Carl St. Clair; the Britten War Requiem with the Fresno Philharmonic Orchestra, and Handel’s Messiah with the Nashville Symphony and Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra.

Since first appearing with the Utah Symphony | Utah Opera as a high school student, Ms. Shafer has performed operatic roles there including The Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute, Musetta in La Boheme, Constanze in The Abduction from the Seraglio, Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Gilda in Rigoletto, Norina in Don Pasquale, Lisette in La Rondine, Tytania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Adele in Die Fledermaus.

Concert repertoire with the USUO has included the Mozart Mass in c minor, Brahms German Requiem, the Bach Magnificat, Vivaldi Gloria, Poulenc Gloria and several concerts of chamber music with conductors such as Bernard Labadie, Raymond Leppard, and former music director Keith Lockhart. She was the 2014/2015 season Artist-in-Residence and recently has sung a New Year’s Eve Gala, Beethoven Symphony No. 9, Mahler Symphonies Nos. 2, 4, and 8, and the Mighty Five tour through Utah’s state parks, all led by music director Thierry Fischer.

Elsewhere Ms. Shafer’s operatic highlights have included Johanna in Sweeney Todd for the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Nanetta in Falstaff with the Los Angeles Opera, both with Bryn Terfel; Blonde in Abduction from the Seraglio with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis; Aithra in Die ägyptische Helena with the American Symphony Orchestra recorded for Telarc; Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos at the Concertgebouw; and Gilda in Rigoletto with the Welsh National Opera.  She has returned to the Santa Fe Opera for productions of Mozart’s Lucio Silla, Berlioz’s Beatrice and Benedict, and Britten’s Albert Herring.

She completed her undergraduate at the University of Utah and received a master’s degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance.

Ms. Shafer’s 2018/19 season include performances of all-Bernstein programs with the Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional de Costa Rica, the Pacific Symphony, and the Grand Rapids Symphony all led by Carl St. Clair; the Britten War Requiem with the Fresno Philharmonic Orchestra, and Handel’s Messiah with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra.  This season she makes two exciting operatic appearances: her first performances as Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute with the Utah Symphony | Utah Opera, and a return to the Cincinnati Opera for her first staged performances of Zerbinetta in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos with the Cincinnati Opera

Among Ms. Shafer’s 2017/2018 appearances included Musetta in La Boheme and the Mozart Mass in C Minor led by Markus Stenz for the Utah Symphony | Utah Opera, Carmina Burana in Costa Rica with Carl St. Clair, and Handel’s Messiah with the Nashville Symphony led by Gary Wedow.

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Celena Shafer: Power, joy and hope in ‘Messiah’
by Mike Nelson

By her own estimate, Celena Shafer has sung Handel’s “Messiah” more times than she can count. But no matter how many times she sings it, it always takes on a profound meaning for this Utah-born soprano, one of four guest soloists who will perform Handel’s classic choral work with New West Symphony April 6 and 7.

“The fact that we can hope and believe in something so powerful as the Messiah is so meaningful,” says Celena. “Even for non-believers or different faith believers, the belief in a higher good, that we are all connected in our humanity, should give us all strength and encouragement.”

A talented singer since her pre-teen years in Centerville, Utah, Celena Shafer has earned praise for her singing and acting while performing in concert halls and on opera stages throughout the U.S. with some of the world’s leading conductors and orchestras. Leading roles include The Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute, Musetta in La Boheme, Constanze in The Abduction from the Seraglio, Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Gilda in Rigoletto, and Norina in Don Pasquale.

Significantly, she also is among a rare breed of talented singers who, relatively early in her career, decided to cut back in her work, rather than take more on. Credit that decision to family, faith and circumstance.

“Growing up as one of eight children in an orthodox Mormon family, I was always surrounded by family, plus I had great friends in school,” she says. “It’s something you miss when you are building your career and living in a different city.”

She recalls arriving at the Cincinnati airport on a Sunday evening, waiting for a driver from the opera company for whom she would perform, and calling her family in Utah.

“I could hear people in the background laughing and having fun,” she says, “and I felt so lost and lonely. I thought I was living the life I’d tried so hard to get, but I realized I hated being on the road.”

And when you are surrounded in your work by people of different belief systems, life can be even lonelier. “Because of my beliefs,” she says, “I was excluded from a lot of socializing in my work.”

The final straw came after she was married and in Chicago for a production of “Sweeney Todd,” and had a miscarriage with her first child.

“My husband and I agreed that I needed to cut back,” she says. “So now, I keep my foot in the door, and call my own shots.” She and her husband have been married 25 years and have “four beautiful sons” who are passionate about music, sports, robotics, skiing and family.

Much like her grandmother who taught her piano from the time she was small, Celena teaches piano and voice to young people in her community, and is a substitute vocal teacher at the University of Utah where she earned bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. She impresses upon her students the importance of teaching others.

“There is something personal passed down from teacher to student that you can’t get from a book,” she says, recalling the teachers she worked with who encouraged and inspired her and tapped into her strengths. “And even students who don’t become professional singers use the skills they acquire and develop to serve the world in a variety of ways.”

She feels blessed to have received encouragement from her own mentors, such as her first vocal teacher who, upon hearing her voice, immediately reached for her book of Italian arias and suggested Celena learn them. There was also her junior high choir teacher who wrote in Celena’s yearbook, “The sky is the limit for you.”

“I’m really fortunate,” she says, “to have had mentors who teach and inspire, and I hope I can do that for other young people.”

Offering inspiration and hope is one reason Celena is always happy to sing Handel’s “Messiah,” composed nearly 300 years ago, but as relevant today as ever.

“It’s the kind of story we need to carry us forward,” she says. “All of our human experience is meaningful and has purpose, and our world needs that now more than ever.”

“And I’m biased, maybe, but I think the soprano gets the best part,” she continues. “The soprano gets to sing about the angels celebrating that Christ will be born, how exciting it is that the Messiah is coming. And later on, she sings, ‘I know my redeemer liveth.’ She redirects the tragedy of Christ’s passion into the hope and joy of the risen Messiah. It’s such an exciting and fabulous story that connects us all, and I look forward to singing it again.”