State College soprano Sarah Shafer makes her mark in opera world

Sarah Shafer appeared in Opera Philadelphia’s production of “The Elixir of Love.”
Sarah Shafer appeared in Opera Philadelphia’s production of “The Elixir of Love.” Photo provided

Praised by The New York Times for her “luminous voice” and “intensely expressive interpretations,” and named “remarkable, artistically mature” and “a singer to watch” by Opera News, soprano opera singer and State College native Sarah Shafer is quickly emerging as a sought-after operatic and concert artist.

A recent graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Shafer’s credits for Curtis Opera Theatre include more than 20 productions and a variety of roles such as Pamina in “Die Zauberflöte,” Elizabeth Zimmer in Henze’s “Elegy for Young Lovers,” Ilia in “Idomeneo,” Rosina in “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” Sofia in “Il Signor Bruschino” and Sister Constance in Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites.”

She recently starred as Adina in Opera Philadelphia’s production of “Elixir of Love.”

Shafer, who graduated from State College Area High School in 2006, has had music in her family her whole life. Her parents are both musicians: her father a pianist, her mother a choir director. Shafer studied the piano with her father throughout her childhood until she was 18, and sang in choirs under her mother’s direction. She would also harmonize with the radio and songs that her mom would play in the car.

“There wasn’t really a time when I didn’t love to sing,” she said. “I was a serious pianist, but then I started taking voice lessons when I was about 13. I knew I wanted to do music, but I wasn’t sure what it would be — piano or voice. I didn’t know I was going to go into singing until I got into school.”

Shafer auditioned in college for both. After earning degrees in both voice and opera, she then decided that she wanted to pursue singing as a profession. While at the Curtis Institute, Shafer starred in a host of operas, and studied there for eight years. Shafer graduated in 2014, but has been working professionally since 2011.

“The nice thing about the school is that they let me go out and do professional work when I was hired, but I was able to come back and continue studying,” she said. “Since then I’ve been based in Philadelphia, and I travel wherever I’m hired to sing.”

Shafer has already embarked on an impressive career, performing supporting roles with the San Francisco Opera and Opera Memphis, while also singing with orchestras in New York, Nashville and Mexico. In addition, Shafer also performed abroad, working a summer in England and France, and singing in concerts in Poland, China and Korea.

Shafer said the Curtis Institute has given her everything in her career — an education that is not all about sitting in classes and learning about music.

“I sang four operas my first year in school, so you get up and do it,” she said. “It’s just about getting up on stage and actually learning by doing.”

Through her experience there, Shafer learned how to be on stage, how to interact with other musicians, and how to follow the conductor.

“All of these things that you do in the professional world they do at Curtis,” she said. “It’s like a technical training program. It’s fantastic, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly.”

In the spring of 2015, Shafer was offered the role of Rosetta in the world premiere of “La Ciociara” (“Two Women”) at San Francisco Opera. For Shafer, it was an experience unlike anything she had ever had before.

“It was a brand new piece, so I was the first person ever to sing the role,” she said. “So you are kind of creating it yourself. It’s an honor and it’s also a big responsibility because you have a lot riding on your shoulders. The process though was wonderful and it ended up being really fun.”

Shafer also starred in San Francisco Opera’s “Die Zauberflote” (“The Magic Flute”) last October. On April 29, Shafer took on her biggest starring role yet as Adina in Opera Philadelphia’s production of “The Elixir of Love” at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. The opera ran through May 8.

One challenge the role brought for Shafer is the fact that she knows the conductor and that he knows her voice so well.

“I know that he’s not going to let me get away with things, so I know that it’s going to be a lot of hard work,” she said. “But I’m looking forward to that. I love working with conductors and I love the chamber music atmosphere of operas in rehearsals.”

Shafer is thankful for what she has been able to accomplish in her young career, but she knows she has many more opportunities and hard work ahead of her.

“I’ve had a lot of great opportunities and I’ve been grateful that someone has asked me to sing,” she said. “My whole thing is that I’m just happy to be singing. I’m grateful for the next performance, for the next work. You have to keep going on the path and keep working no matter what.”