Get to Know Henze’s “Young Lovers” Q & A with Curtis soprano Sarah Shafer and tenor Joshua Stewart

Opera Company of Philadelphia audiences have grown warmly accustomed to the opportunity to “catch a rising star” thanks to the incredible wealth of vocal talent that is trained right here in Philadelphia, and the annual Aurora Series production of Curtis Opera Theatre has become a highlight for many steadfast subscribers that want to be able to say, “I heard that star at Curtis first!”  This month’s Curtis Opera Theatre production of Elegy for Young Lovers is no different, with a cast of artists who have already begun their distinguished careers in many cases.

Hailed for his “big, warm, confident” voice (Palm Beach Arts Paper) and “interpretive conviction,” (Philadelphia City Paper), tenor Joshua Stewart is no stranger to Philadelphia audiences, having performed memorable roles with Curtis Opera Theatre in Idomeneo, The Rake’s Progress, Antony and Cleopatra, and Wozzeck, among others.  Having spent several summers at the Music Academy of the West under the guidance of legendary mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, his career is steadily on the rise in the U.S. and Europe.

Likewise, when soprano Sarah Shafer took the stage for Idomeneo as presented by Curtis Opera Theatre, the Philadelphia Inquirer raved, “… as rendered by soprano Sarah Shafer, conductor George Manahan and harpsichordist Tiziana Descano – [the first act] embodied all that's special in Mozart's first stage masterpiece… Shafer had a near-perfect vocal weight and all the needed style for the role of Ilia.”  She has performed in over 14 roles with Curtis Opera Theatre and has a busy concert schedule – including her performance as a featured artist with Philadelphia Chamber Music  Society in December 2012. 

We asked these two hard-working artists to answer some questions in the midst of their full rehearsal schedule for the area premiere of this contemporary masterpiece by Hans Werner Henze.

Q:  Where are you from originally?

SARAH:  I’m from State College, PA.

JOSHUA:  I'm originally from New Orleans – so singing a newer work is really fascinating to me because I think about the great strides that were being made in the world of jazz at the same time.


Q:  Tell us a little bit about your character.

JOSHUA:  Toni Reischman is a spoiled brat, who is used to getting his way. He is extremely hostile to his father, who is the doctor at the inn. Toni falls for Elizabeth Zimmer, his godfather's hot young girlfriend.  

SARAH:  My character is Elizabeth Zimmer, the young muse of the famous, aging poet, Gregor Mittenhofer. She is very pleased with her life until she meets Mittenhofer's godson, Toni, who sends her into a tailspin of emotions and dilemmas that result in her eventual death. She is by far the most unhappy, unfulfilled character I have played.


Q:  What is the most challenging or rewarding aspect of ELEGY FOR YOUNG LOVERS from your perspective as an artist?

SARAH:  At first, I was very daunted from a learning standpoint. But I found that once the notes and rhythms were comfortable, it was so fulfilling to nail those crazy intervals, and I enjoy telling this dark, tragic story through W. H. Auden's mastery of language and poetry.  The beauty of opera is the joining of elements – orchestra, drama, singing.  I’m hoping that the unique combination of Auden's text, the rich vocal writing, and the colorful orchestration will become a meaningful language as the audience progresses through the opera.

JOSHUA:  The most challenging part for me was finding time to step away from the piece. When you work on a difficult piece, such as this one, I have found that it begins to take over your life.  You begin the beautiful love affair with the text, the music, the characters, etc.  They become your best friends – or even your worst enemy.  


Q:  How important to your development as an artist is it to have the chance to perform in full-length opera performances while you are at Curtis, such as ELEGY?

JOSHUA:  I feel it is very important to sing the entire opera. You get the complete panoramic view as opposed to just a snap shot. It takes you on a ride. Thanks to Curtis and to [Artistic Director of Curtis Opera Theatre] Mikael Eliasen, who believes strongly that one should sing opera in school rather than talk about singing opera, I’ve had the opportunity to sing many different operas in all forms.

SARAH:  It is the one thing that separates Curtis from all other schools for me. Singers of my age rarely get these opportunities, and it is only the experience of performing that truly prepares one to perform professionally. I am beyond grateful to Curtis for the chance to actually DO what I love!


Q:  What is your favorite thing about living in Philadelphia? 

SARAH:  I like the neighborhood feeling in Center City, the shopping on Chestnut Street, and the fact that I get to live with my sister (a Temple student)!

JOSHUA:  I love living in Philly because of Curtis, first, and secondly, because of the proximity to so much great art, in and around the Philadelphia area.  Philly became my home after Hurricane Katrina seven years ago, so it will forever be a special place to me. 


 BUY TICKETS NOW!   March 14 (best availability), 16 & 18m at the Perelman Theater