CHELSEA SHEPHARD, soprano: “Music is a safe place to grieve”

Chelsea Shephard

Chelsea Shephard

“I am incredibly excited about the chance to perform both the Brahms Requiem and A Garden Among the Flames. How admirable of The Cecilia Chorus of New York and Maestro Shapiro to commission that piece by the Syrian composer Zaid Jabri, calling out for peace and tolerance while describing the trauma of the refugees fleeing the horrors in the region. None of us can get the images of the young boy covered in blood, or the child washed up on the shore, or the most recent photos of the horrifying chemical attacks out of our minds, but we can’t take on the pain of the whole world all the time. Music is a safe place to experience this. It gives us permission to grieve in a way we can’t experience in our everyday lives. And, after hearing A Garden Among the Flames, who can listen to the Brahms Requiem without hearing it as a requiem for Syria?”

For Chelsea Shephard, the Requiem strikes an even more personal note. She is still grieving for her mother, who died two years ago of injuries from an accident. “In my experience, art is constantly following life. Brahms wrote the Fifth Movement—the soprano solo which I sing—after the death of his own mother. The soprano is not a character, like in an opera; the part is written to represent an angel, promising comfort to those who mourn. I was practicing this piece with one of my coaches and it was so beautiful, the music so ethereal, that I was on the verge of tears. But my coach said no, you must not cry. It is the audience that has to cry. Your voice needs to serve the music.”

And that music, finds Chelsea, is technically highly challenging. In most operas, a soloist doesn’t sing her great dramatic aria until well into the piece. The composer usually lets her “warm up” first with a duet or some shorter phrases in an easier range, allowing the singer to get her breath and rid herself of nerves before exposing herself with a demanding aria. “But in the Brahms Requiem, I sit silently through four whole movements until, in the fifth, I have to stand and pour out a gorgeous, high, ethereal, seemingly unending phrase. And it has to be perfect!”

Shephard to Morris and back

Many professional women with public careers struggle with the choice of whether or not to take their husband’s name. The young soprano Chelsea Shephard had no such hesitation when she married at the age of 24. As the romantically inclined, freshly minted Chelsea Morris, she began to rack up rave reviews and notices as she started building her career following her voice studies at DePaul University in Chicago and Rice University in Houston. Singing operatic roles such as Beth in Little Women, Pamina in Die Zauberflöte and Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro, winning top prizes at competitions around the country, and performing recitals and choral works in Chicago and New York, Chelsea was faced with the opposite dilemma when her marriage ended last year. “That name was no longer part of who I was. So I took the plunge and changed it back to Shephard.”

Having sung in public since she was five years old, Chelsea got leading roles in all of her school musicals. Knowing very little about opera or other forms of classical singing, her dream at age 18 was to star on Broadway, but she did want a classically-trained voice. Her first music teacher at DePaul was the mezzo-soprano Susan Mentzer, whose career spanning opera, concerts, church music, and working with composers was an inspiration to the young student. “I learned that singing classical music wouldn’t box me in. Even today, I still don’t want to have to choose one particular form. I love all kinds of song performance and I think each of them informs the others.”

Born and raised in Michigan and having performed extensively in Chicago and in Madison, Wisconsin, Chelsea feels very much a Midwesterner. Still, at age 30 she decided it was time to move to New York City to take advantage of its myriad opportunities for classical singers. "I know the competition is very stiff. There is so much talent pouring out of the schools here and into the city from all over the world. But I am ready for this. I have my own plans and I’m excited about pursuing them.”

Those plans include her Carnegie Hall debut on May 6 with The Cecilia Chorus of New York. A beloved mentor of hers, Steven Blier, the artistic director and co-founder of The New York Festival of Song, offered her her NYC recital debut in 2015. Blier then introduced her to Maestro Mark Shapiro, who engaged her to sing in Dame Ethyl Smyth’s The Prison with his chamber choral group Cantori New York last year. He followed that up with an invitation to perform in A Garden Among the Flames and Brahms’s Requiem with The Cecilia Chorus of New York.

Chelsea Shephard is dedicating her Carnegie Hall debut performance to the loving memory of her mother.

BIOGRAPHY, CHELSEA SHEPHARD

Chelsea Shephard, soprano, gave an “exquisite” NYC recital debut in 2015 with New York Festival of Song, garnering praise for her “beautiful, lyric instrument” and “flawless legato” (Opera News). In the 2016-2017 season, Ms. Shephard joined the roster of Lyric Opera of Chicago for a new production of Das Rheingold and will be making her Carnegie Hall debut with The Cecilia Chorus of New York on May 6.  Other current season highlights include recitals and a recording of Paul Bowles’ Pincin Cantata (NYFOS), return engagements with the Madison Bach Musicians (Scarlatti’s Christmas Cantata, Bach’s St. John Passion), as well as her Chicago Chorale debut in Bach’s B Minor Mass. Previously, the versatile soprano has performed operatic roles including Beth/Little Women, Calisto/La Calisto, Pamina/Die Zauberflöte, Susanna/Le nozze di Figaro, Lauretta/Gianni Schicchi, Lisa/The Land of Smiles, Emily Webb/Our Town, and Poppea/L’incoronazione di Poppea with companies such as Madison Opera, Opera Grand Rapids, Haymarket Opera Company, and Caramoor International Music Festival. Ms. Shephard was featured as a Finalist for the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center (2015), won First Place in the Madison Early Music Festival Handel Aria Competition (2014), The Schubert Club (2013), and National Opera Association (2011) competitions, and was a Finalist in the Jensen Foundation Competition in NYC (2014). She was also awarded an Education Grant from the Metropolitan Opera National Council (2016). The Michigan native holds degrees from DePaul University and Rice University, and she recently released her first CD, in collaboration with fortepianist Trevor Stephenson: Songs by Mozart, Haydn & Schubert (Light & Shadow Label). This summer, the pair will collaborate on a second album featuring songs by Debussy, Strauss, Ives, and Brahms with Mr. Stephenson’s lovingly-restored 1855 Bösendorfer piano. More information can be found at www.chelseashephardsoprano.com.