SALT LAKE CITY — After months and months of relentlessly begging her mother for voice lessons, Celena Shafer got her wish.
For the first few lessons, the then-seventh-grader sang somewhat timidly, using what she called her “nice, quiet church voice.”
But once Shafer warmed up to her teacher, she was ready to divulge a secret: “There’s this other voice that I can do that you should hear,” she confided to her teacher.
It was a voice that Shafer, the fifth of eight children, used all the time in her Centerville home — except when sitting at the dinner table. Her parents had to draw the line somewhere.
It was loud, big and full. It was opera.
Upon hearing that voice, Shafer’s teacher didn’t waste any time. She pulled out a book called “26 Italian Songs and Arias” and Shafer never looked back.
Now, about 30 years later, that voice Shafer so hesitantly shared with her teacher will be on display during Utah Opera’s production of “The Magic Flute,” which runs March 9-17 at the Capitol Theatre. The coloratura soprano will take the stage as the vengeful Queen of the Night — a role with one of the most famous arias in all of opera. A loving mother of four boys, Shafer admitted she enjoys getting to play a character as bloodthirsty as the Queen of the Night every once in a while.
“It’s kind of really nice to be a bad momma, 'cause generally I’m a really nice momma,” she told the Deseret News. “(My husband and I) don’t spank and we do timeouts. We’re pretty soft-spoken as parents, so it’s really nice to (play) the bad momma and tell my daughter to take this knife and go kill the high priest. It’s fun to play characters that are so opposite from yourself.”
But there’s something else Shafer loves about performing with Utah Opera and playing that demanding role: It proves that a career many believed she was throwing away 16 years ago, when she decided to focus on raising a family, is still very much alive.
‘A huge leap of faith’
Shafer had her first miscarriage near the end of 2002.
It happened during her time with Chicago Lyric Opera, where she was singing the role of Johanna in “Sweeney Todd.” She and her husband, Bradley Shafer, had been married for about four years.
“We were trying to start our family, and it made my husband and I step back and think, ‘What do we really want for our lives?’” said Shafer, who studied vocal performance at the University of Utah. “And it was at this point my career had just really started to take off and I could see work lining up for years ahead of me.”
Before the miscarriage, the plan was for Shafer to take some time off to have the baby and then return to her demanding performing schedule while her husband took care of their child.
But that all changed with the miscarriage. At a moment when Shafer could foresee an international opera career, she had a huge realization: She wanted children, and she wanted to be there for them.
To that end, she canceled several upcoming engagements and decided to prioritize work that wouldn’t keep her from her family for long periods of time.
“It was really hard to make that decision because getting to the point where you are starting to have gigs lined up takes years and years of hard work and sacrifice,” she said. "It’s just so hard that most people when they get to that point aren’t willing to make that change.
“It was a huge leap of faith, but I knew that we had been given the answer that we needed. God really was saying, ‘This is your plan. It’s not the plan for everybody, but it’s your plan. This is where you’re going to find your true happiness,’” continued Shafer, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “So that was our leap of faith. Sometimes you have to take that step into the darkness before you see any light ahead of you.”
And for Shafer, making that life-changing, career-altering decision really did feel like a step into the dark.
“I kind of thought at that point that it was over,” she said. “I thought, ‘There’s no way that people are going to hire me still.'"
She was wrong.
‘A world-class company’
Things didn’t slow down for Shafer once she and her husband settled along the Wasatch Front. The couple had their first child in 2004, and when her husband — who teaches band at North Layton Junior High — had summer breaks, the family would travel together so Shafer could pick up performing gigs with companies, including Santa Fe Opera, where Shafer had previously worked for two summers as an apprentice singer. During this time, she also debuted with the New York Philharmonic and performed with the Washington Concert Opera in Washington, D.C.
Locally, Shafer began performing fairly regularly with Utah Opera — the soprano has performed on-and-off with the company for so long that she can’t even recall when she made her debut. But there’s one Utah Opera production that stands out high above all the rest: “La Rondine” in January 2006.
During that production, Shafer received one of the biggest surprises of her life.
She’d recently had another miscarriage but was pregnant again. While Shafer expected to have some difficulty fitting into her costume for “La Rondine,” she was struggling more than she had anticipated.
“The costume just kept not fitting,” she said. “I knew I was pregnant, but I was like, ‘I shouldn't be getting this fat this fast.’”
And then came the shocking explanation: She was having twins.
Fortunately, Utah Opera designs its costumes to be highly alterable, so Shafer was able to make do. That moment is just a snapshot of how Utah Opera has helped the singer maintain a career while raising children.
“Utah Opera has been so kind to include me in about every season or every other season,” Shafer said. “I get to keep my opera chops up — opera has not completely been off of my plate because of Utah Opera.”
Performing regularly with Utah Opera and the Utah Symphony has also brought things full-circle for Shafer, who debuted with the symphony as a Salute to Youth soloist when she was a 17-year-old senior at Viewmont High School. Now, Shafer is enjoying watching her four boys — who are active in sports, music and theater — take advantage of the same opportunities she had as a young, aspiring opera singer in Utah.
A far cry from her "Magic Flute" "bad momma" character, this proud mother seemed as excited for her kids’ recent involvement with Jaks Youth Theatre Company’s production of “The Little Mermaid” as she is to be performing one of the most famous arias in the opera world.
With Shafer taking on more opera roles as her children are getting older, she does have to travel for a few days every few months. And while it's fun to get out, performing on the Utah Opera stage, where her family is just a 30-minute drive away, is what Shafer loves best.
“They’re a world-class company right here that I’ve been able to perform with,” she said. “That has just blessed my life immensely.”
If you go …
What: Utah Opera's “The Magic Flute”
When: March 9 and 15, 7:30 p.m.; March 11 and 13, 7 p.m.; March 17, 2 p.m.
Where: Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South
How much: $36-$108