2015 Best Student Actress Nominee: Sara Beth Shelton as Madame de la Haltière in Boston University College of Fine Arts' "Cendrillon"

Before we announce our 2015 ArtsImpulse Award Winners, we are proud to present our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series. 

NOTE: If you were nominated for a 2015 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series, please email us at brian@artsimpulse.com

PHOTO CREDIT: Eliade Novat.

PHOTO CREDIT: Eliade Novat.

Sara Beth Shelton dazzled as Madame de la Haltière in the Boston University College of Fine Arts and Opera Institute's Cendrillon, an opera adaptation of the classic Cinderella fairy tale. Sara Beth shone not only in her bright tone, but in her demanding physicality and presence, exuding confidence and poise well beyond her years. In her Interview, Sara Beth  talks about the challenges of the role, some of her most influential life lessons, and her many upcoming roles. 

Hi, Sara Beth, and welcome to the ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series.  Can you start by telling our readers more about yourself?

Thank you for nominating me!  My name is Sara Beth Shelton.  I am a Southern girl, born and raised, from Rock Hill, South Carolina, and I have been residing in Boston for over two years now. I recently graduated from Boston University in May 2015. 

I am a middle child, having an older sister and younger brother.  My family and friends are very important to me.  I think it’s essential to surround yourself with people who lift you up, and I am happy to have that at home as well as with my second family in Boston.

What made you pursue opera?  How did you end up at Boston University?  Why is this an ideal program for you? 

There was a distinct moment when I fell in love with opera, during my undergraduate degree at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.  I was in an opera workshop class, and it was the first time I had to perform an aria in front of everyone.  I was incredibly nervous, but I made it through the aria.  To workshop it, my teacher refocused me by having me close my eyes and sit on the floor.  She then described the scene of Venice in great detail: the sights, the sounds, and the smells.  And once I could visualize and feel everything in the scene, the undergraduate life of Sara Beth faded away, and I was transported into this new world.  Nothing mattered in that moment but the story, and that I served it.  Before I realized it, I had sung through the whole aria, and I opened my eyes, leaving the world I was in and returning to reality.  My eyes welled up with tears of joy because I had never experienced such happiness in all of my life.  I knew then that I never wanted to lose this feeling, and I wanted to experience it over and over again. Opera gave me hope, and saved me from a very difficult time in my life.

Once I obtained my bachelor’s degree in music education, I made plans to pursue vocal performance by auditioning for graduate programs.  I decided to choose Boston University for several reasons.  First and foremost, my teacher, Penelope Bitzas, really made a massive amount of improvements with my voice within the first lesson.  Finding a good teacher as a vocalist is imperative when choosing a school. She has really been an amazing impact on my life, and has played a huge role in molding my voice.  The amount of growth that I experienced is a huge testament to the quality of education provided by ALL members of the voice and opera departments. 

Also, the collaboration between the different departments of the College of Fine Arts at BU really caught my attention, too.  I came from a program where the singers in the opera had to build the sets, break them down, and help backstage, so to see this tremendous collaboration was really admirable and inspiring.  The production quality is very high for all of the operas, and I believe that is due in part to the strength of the artistic team.  I have always believed the arts need to be more unified, and I am happy that I could be a part of the program where the arts are working together toward a common goal. 

Talk to us about your role in Cendrillon.  How would you describe the style of this opera?  How would you describe this role?  What were some of the challenges?  What were some of the highlights?

When you listen to this opera, the music and the story create an enchanting atmosphere from the moment the Maestro waves his baton to when the curtain falls.  While it is said to be one of Massenet's most comical works, the story is steeped in issues of family dynamics, which, I believe, makes it very real and relatable for audience members to experience.  Massenet also shows the depth of loneliness that these characters feel.  At one point after the ball, Cendrillon (Cinderella) is so lonely that she runs to the forest to die.  Through this example, you can see this isn’t your typical tale of Cinderella, and even though there are a lot of dark elements to the story, it is equally contrasted with the light of the fairies, or the light of the love between Cendrillon and her father.  It’s not all fairy dust and magic, but it also does not go as dark as Brothers Grimm.  It’s a good balance of both.

Playing Madame de la Haltière was one of the most liberating experiences I have ever had. I really enjoyed diving into the many layers of her and figuring out why she is the way she is. From the beginning, the director made sure that we would not fall into the trap of playing caricatures with the Stepsisters and Stepmother.  It is so easy to do, and so many people do it with these ladies. 

Madame de la Haltière (Sara Beth Shelton) in Boston University College of Fine Arts & Opera Institute's Cendrillon (Photo Credit: Oshin Gregorian). 

Madame de la Haltière (Sara Beth Shelton) in Boston University College of Fine Arts & Opera Institute's Cendrillon (Photo Credit: Oshin Gregorian). 

Madame is a woman who is proud of her noble heritage and who is incredibly confident in who she is and what she believes. She doesn't like the idea of her daughters not continuing this tradition of marrying men that are well above their stations, and the possibility of her stepdaughter, Cinderella, gaining something that her daughters should have disgusts her, especially with everything Cinderella represents.  She doesn't think there is anything admirable about the way Pandolphe (my husband) and Cendrillon live their life.  They believe in kindness and benevolence. This is not a means of getting ahead in life for Madame because she was never raised to live in that way. She is a product of her upbringing, and it is her duty to continue the legacy.

One of the challenges that I faced with this role was the physicality, and I have Loren Meeker and Melinda Sullivan to thank for pushing me and helping me to rise to the challenge.  They showed me ways of expressing myself in a more refined manner.  Madame has had the proper training that her daughters lack, and it is up to her to be a shining example of what it means to be a lady.  As I said before, this woman loves every part of herself, and so, I had to make sure to find certain stances that exude strength and to radiate confidence in my body with every step that I took.  Everything she says and does is intentional.  The lessons I learned in physicality from this show have helped me immensely in how I approach other roles, and I am so thankful for having the opportunity to have learned these lessons that have strengthened my skills as an actress.

I have two moments that I will always remember.  One of the highlights was just taking part in a production with such talented singers, music, and artistic team.  It was a gorgeous set design with this theme of shattered glass, inspired by the glass slipper, along with an art deco geometrical design, having tarnished gold and black.  Then, the costumes were glorious! I loved the contrast between the lovely white costumes of the fairies and fairy godmother, against the black Kardashian-style costumes of the stepmother and stepmother.  The artistic team created a scene that expressed the style of opera, right down to the last detail. It truly was a sight to behold, and an honor to experience.  Everyone involved in this process from the stage crew to the chorus made this story come to life, and we could not have done it without a single person.

Another highlight was when Madame returns from the ball and has her big tirade because the Prince picked this mysterious woman (Cendrillon), instead of one of her daughters. That scene reeked of Madame with every word, with every note, and with every movement, and I just soaked it in.  It was so empowering to experience, especially when you hear the big brass section during the aria.

Do you have any types of opera roles that you prefer to play?  Why?  Do you have any particular composer or type of opera that you prefer to sing?Haltière

I like to play roles that challenge me, and push me out of my comfort zone.  I always feel I discover so much about myself while I am exploring a character.  My favorite opera composer is Verdi.  His operas are so powerful. They really speak to my soul.  I would love to one day be Ulrica in Un Ballo in Maschera.  She is at the top of my list of roles to do before I die. 

What have been some of the more influential lessons that you have learned in the past year?  The past five years?

The most important lesson I have learned is to really know myself.  As an artist, self-awareness is essential.  In order for me to grow, I had to be real with myself and identify all of my strengths and weaknesses. I feel not working on these weaknesses can lead to great feelings of insecurity, which can lead to fear.  I definitely did fall into that trap from time to time, but I knew I deserved better than that.  I didn’t want to limit myself.  I wanted to become the best version of me that I could possibly be.  And by setting short attainable goals, I knew I would get there some day.  Am I going to be my best self in a day, or a month? No . . . but will I have improved?  Yes. 

You have to never lose sight of the end goal, and always take pride in the amount of progress you have made along the way.  It’s such a learning process, and it requires you to be patient with yourself and to really work through the challenges. 

Do you have any resolutions or goals for 2016?

My resolution is the same every year: to keep improving myself and becoming the best person I can possibly be in every part of my life. 

Do you have any advice for people who might be new to seeing and enjoying opera?

Don’t have any set expectations before you go and see a new opera.  Keep an open mind when you enter the theater, and when the show starts, immerse yourself in the story. It’s not all grand dresses, powdered wigs, and ladies with horns and breastplates.  The story that is so delightfully enhanced by the music is what’s so special. You will be surprised by what you see and hear!  And with opera, the combination of the drama, the orchestra, and the singing can create such a moving and healing experience for the observer. 

What is your favorite fairy tale?  Why?  Would you want to be any character in the story?

My favorite fairy tale has always been Cinderella.  I love the rags to riches story, and the idea of goodness triumphing over evil, against all odds.  As a young girl, I probably would have told you that I would be Cinderella in the story, but, having grown up, I would without a doubt say that I would want to be the Stepmother.  Madame has been on my list of dream roles for quite some time, so it was wonderful for one of my dreams to finally come true through this production.

If you couldn’t perform opera, what would you do instead?

I am naturally a caregiver and a nurturer.  I would probably do social work, work at an animal shelter/hospital, or own my own flower shop.  Doing something where I can directly make a difference in the lives of others is important to me, and I think if I were to play on my personality strengths, I would probably take on a position where I can be of service to someone or something.

What is one thing that most people don’t know about you?

I love to garden.  Some of my best friends call me Professor Sprout!  There's something really rewarding about planting a tiny seed and nurturing it to become something that is unique, beautiful, and thriving with life. Taking a moment to stop, and take part in a process that has been happening on this earth for thousands of years really grounds me and puts things into perspective.  Also, this might sound corny, but I always have thought of flowers as the world's way of smiling back at me, especially in the Spring after a long winter.  They remind us that there is hope for a brighter tomorrow, and that renewal and rebirth are possible.

Do you have any upcoming projects?

I recently finished working with MetroWest Opera on Adamo's Little Women.  I was the old, rich Aunt Cecilia March, which was so much fun. 

For my upcoming projects, I look forward to being Cornelia in Giulio Cesare with Opera Theater of Pittsburgh's Summerfest as a Featured Artist.  This character will be very different from ones that I have done in the past, so I look forward to the challenge and discovering where Cornelia exists within myself. 

Do you have anything else to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

Again, I am so grateful for being nominated, and I am thankful for everyone’s support throughout these past couple of years in the Boston area.  Being Madame was truly a treasured moment in my life, and I look forward to the possibility of playing her again one day!