Artist Interview: Sarah Shafer, soprano

By Erik Petersons on October 17, 2012

Fast-rising soprano Sarah Shafer debuts at the Glyndebourne Festival, with the Opera Company of Philadelphia, and with PCMS during the 2012-13 season.  I spoke with Sarah about her two PCMS appearances this year–on December 7th with legendary pianist Richard Goode and on January 13th with guitarist Jason Vieaux.

Erik Petersons: You will be performing with both Richard Goode and Jason Vieaux this season. How did you choose the works for these programs?  Are there connections that tie the pieces together?

Sarah Shafer: I am so excited to be singing on the PCMS series this year, and feel so fortunate to get to perform recitals with two such wonderful artists! Programming recitals like these always seems a daunting thing when there is such a wealth of great repertoire, and so many different directions one could go. It is a very different process with every recital, and in the end, for a singer, it comes down to the stories one most wants to share with the audience. I'm very pleased that the two recitals in which I'll be performing couldn't be more different! I'll be singing English sets of Dowland and Britten with Jason Vieaux, which will have a totally different feel than my repertoire with Richard Goode. In the program with him, we'll be offering a sampling of German lieder with works by Mahler, Brahms, and Schubert, to name a few.

EP: Tell me about your relationship with Richard Goode and how your artistic collaboration came about. What is it like to work with him?

SS: I've known Richard's playing for most of my life, having listened to and loved his Beethoven sonatas as a teenager when I was studying piano. But I actually met him in 2010, before my first summer at the Marlboro Music Festival. Over the next summer there we spent a lot of time together reading and working on lieder, especially Brahms and Schubert. I would bring in pieces I'd found reading on my own, and so would he. I remember how nervous I was before our first reading, having known and loved his playing for so long. But Richard is rather soft-spoken and very kind, and actually does most of his talking through his playing, and so I soon forgot my nerves as we began to pore over score after score. My musical senses all go into high gear when singing with him; he is such a sensitive listener as he plays, and I never want to miss anything he might toss over to me!

EP: For your second appearance with PCMS, you will be performing a set of pieces by Britten and Dowland with guitarist Jason Vieaux.  What is the character of these songs and what can the audience listen for?

SS: The first set I'm singing with Jason is a charming bunch of folk songs that Britten set for guitar and high voice. I love them because they have a huge range of emotions from one song to the next, and can be very quirky and funny at times! The texts range from talking about love, to praying for good beer, to a lover mistaking his sweetheart for a swan and shooting her by accident! I'm looking forward to getting to be a storyteller, and to enjoying Britten's comments on these stories through the guitar part.

The second set consists of three Renaissance songs by John Dowland, including his most famous air, Flow My Tears. Here the texts are much more dense and the subjects a bit more serious. The texture in these songs is simpler than the Britten, perhaps due to the complexity and gravity of the texts. Because the accompaniment is so light, it draws a lot of attention to the text, and gives me the chance to color each word with meaning and hopefully bring some clarity to these poems. Flow My Tears is especially sad–we don't really know what the poet's problem is exactly, but whatever it is, it's so horrible that in the last phrase the poet envies those in Hell, who must be happier than he is! Talk about a downer! Happily we don't end there, but our last song is about eagerly hoping for the return of love.

EP: As you complete your studies at the Curtis Institute, can you reflect on some of what you have learned there? What are your goals after you graduate?

SS: Curtis has done so much for me; I hardly know where to begin! I feel so grateful to be at Curtis, and with each year that passes here my thankfulness grows. Curtis has been the ideal place for me to grow up as a singer. I'm convinced that I would not be doing the things I am now if I had been anywhere else. The countless opportunities to perform, audition, and at the same time to have a safe and supportive environment in which to study and hone my technique -- these things are imperative for the training of a young singer, and not easy to find in one place. When I came to Curtis, I didn't even know what I needed, just that I loved to sing. And Curtis has given me the tools and shown me the path to having a career doing what I love, as no other school could possibly have done.

As for my goals after Curtis, all I can really tell you is that I know that I want to sing all forms of classical vocal music. I love opera and hope to make it a big part of my career, and I also love oratorio and concert singing (probably my favorite), but also have a great love of performing chamber music and lieder. I don't really know what form that will take for the years to come yet, but I'm very excited at the prospect of a lifetime of singing and studying wonderful music ahead of me! I'm very happy to have this year as a transition between being in school and being out and performing. I'm in the happy position of being able to go out and set my foot in the water a bit with some concerts, recitals, and operas, and then have school to come back to and be able to have lessons and coachings, and more experience performing. I really couldn't ask for a better set-up.

EP: You studied at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont for a couple of summers. How did your experience there shape you as an artist?

SS: I was at Marlboro for two wonderful summers, and it holds a very special place in my heart. As all the musicians at Marlboro can attest, once you've spent a summer at Marlboro, your music-making is never the same. I loved getting to work on music without having a deadline, just digging into the depths of great pieces to see what's there with people as passionate about it as me. Musicians draw inspiration from each other there, and the whole feeling is one of family and caring. I think being there taught me a lot about working with people, and how to learn and improve from every experience. Marlboro has also provided me with great opportunities, like the privilege of performing with Richard Goode.

EP: Can you talk a little about the beginning of your days as a singer?  Who or what were some of your earliest inspirations?

SS: Well, I've loved singing for as long as I can remember. My mom is a choir director and my dad a pianist, so music was always in our house. I sang in choirs from an early age, sang with my two sisters, and then started taking voice lessons around age fourteen. I performed my first "role" at seventeen as "Mabel" in my high school's production of The Pirates of Penzance. My earliest inspiration as an aspiring singer was without a doubt Kathleen Battle. She was the first opera singer I ever loved–I thought she was so musical, and her voice was so sparklingly pure. Her singing helped me to recognize the beauty in opera and classical singing, and instilled in me the desire to sing like that too.

Sarah Shafer appears with Richard Goode on Friday, December 7th at 8pm at the American Philosophical Society’s Benjamin Franklin Hall and again with Jason Vieaux on Sunday, January 13th at 3pm at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  For tickets and information, visit our website or call the PCMS Box Office at 215.569.8080.