The Herald, Sharon, PA Published Thursday, Jan. 31, 2002


Holy Trinity recital to feature local contralto's mighty voice

By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer

Susan Shafer sings with what is considered an unusual voice.

She is a contralto, the lowest of women's voices, but has the ability to sing higher parts than most contraltos can reach. And she can sing loud.

This combination should bode well for her future.

"They say the lower the voice and the louder it is the longer you can keep it," said the New Wilmington resident, who gives a recital Friday in Greenville.

Natural talent aside, singing in recitals and operas and with symphonies requires hard work. Even though she's 49, she still has "breakthroughs" with her coach.

"There's a lot of change all the time," said the artist-in-residence at Westminster College, New Wilmington. "Since I started so late, I still feel I'm in the learning process."

Ms. Shafer was comfortably ensconced in her career as an elementary teacher for Wilmington schools when Robert Page discovered her at about age 25.

The native of North Huntingdon, Pa., and her husband, Richard, auditioned for the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, which Page directed. He now directs the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh.

"This guy flipped over my voice," she said. "He heard something that no one had ever heard before. He was the whole impetus for my career."

Ms. Shafer had sung in choirs, but her formal training was in piano. She resisted Page's urging, but eventually started formal training.

Originally wanting to be a recital singer, she widened her horizons upon learning about the realities of a classical singing career.

"If you're going to have a career in classical music, you're going to have to do everything," including concerts, opera and recitals, said Ms. Shafer, who recorded Wagner's "Die Walkure" with the Cleveland Orchestra, under the baton of Christoph von Dohnanyi, and has performed throughout Europe, Canada and the United States.

Recitals are few and far between.

"That's what's so exciting to be able to do this at Holy Trinity in Greenville," she said of the host of Friday's concert at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. "It's wonderful that they have this program."

For the Greenville show, she chose a German-themed program, starting with four songs by Erich Korngold.

Best known for his film scores, Korngold incorporated jazz and other contemporary influences into his music.

The concert's second section will be seven Antonin Dvorak Gypsy songs. She described them as freewheeling but with folk influences.

To end the show, she'll explore the myth of the Lorelei, a woman who sat on a hill over a tough stretch of the Rhine River in Germany and lured sailors onto the rocks with her beautiful singing.

Franz Liszt, Robert Schumann and choral music composer Charles Stanford are among those who embraced the theme.

Ms. Shafer will be accompanied by Russell Miller of Rochester, N.Y., whom she met while studying at the Jiulliard School, New York.

German is Ms. Shafer's second-best language, following Englis. She can get by in Italian and French and has sung in Russian.

But even with her familiarity with German, she still reviews it regularly with a coach, just as she continues to take voice lessons.

"It's always a challenge to maintain a certain standard," said Ms. Shafer, who spends half the year on the road.

It's also a chore to find work.

"It's a very difficult career," she said. "There's incredible competition."

But contraltos do not face the intensity of competition that sopranos and tenors do, and usually play supporting roles in operas.

"You're the Ethel Mertz, not the Lucille Ball, of the opera," said.

That's fine with Ms. Shafer. Supporting roles require less work to prepare for and allow her to spend more time with her husband and 13-year-old son, Chuck.

Upcoming jobs include singing in Benjamin Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in March in Milwaukee and Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" in April in Denver. She reprises the "Onegin" role with the Santa Fe Opera in the summer.

Having given up her dream career of teaching elementary children to pursue music, she's not about to leave singing.

"You're not able to think about doing anything else," she said. "You can't stand to separate yourself from these things."

Friday's concert begins at 8 p.m. at the church at the corner of Penn Avenue and Clinton Street. Information: (724) 588-8870.

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