The facilitation of this interview with Coloratura Soprano Sarah Coburn by the Los Angeles and Seattle Operas is gratefully acknowledged.
Wm: It might surprise the operatic world as to how many international opera stars hail from the U.S.A.’s Central Plains states. We know that Leona Mitchell discovered she had a voice as a young girl singing in the churches in Enid, Oklahoma. Did your church and high school experiences in Muskogee, Oklahoma inspire you to pursue vocal training? Who were the early influences on your vocal career?
[Below: Soprano Sarah Coburn, here as Lucia in the Tulsa Opera production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”; edited image, based on a David Gribbin photograph for the Tulsa Opera.]
SC: My earliest musical influences came from my mother’s side of the family. My grandmother was a jazz singer, and my aunt is an amazing pianist. In my immediate family, I was the only one crazy enough to pursue performance as a profession, although my mother and sisters have beautiful voices. I did sing in church choir and high school choirs and musicals, although I did not really take myself that seriously as a singer until after college.
Wm: You’ve been widely quoted that you applied to Juilliard in New York City unsuccessfully, but instead pursued baccalaureate level vocal training at first Oklahoma State University in Stillwater and, for your masters, the vocal arts program at Oklahoma City University. The latter program has produced such stars as Leona Mitchell and Chris Merritt, among other notables.
Fully respecting the reputation of Juilliard, it is impressive just how many opera stars were educated at the Heartland land grant colleges and other public universities. Do you believe that you got from OSU and OCU what you needed to get from institutions of higher education, and that you and other graduates of such schools are at no particular disadvantage when compared with the alumni of a school like Juilliard?
SC: I didn’t apply to Juilliard until after I was already in graduate school; I applied to JOC (Juilliard Opera Center) with the hopes of continuing my training in New York after I had received my master’s degree. Yes, I was rejected, but of course, that was only one of many rejections that I would receive, something almost all singers endure when starting their transition from school to professional singing.
I cannot compare the education I received with that which I did not experience, but I do know that I had wonderful voice teachers, and many rigorous classes with professors who required serious work. My focus was not on vocal performance until graduate school; I studied music education at Oklahoma State, so my studies there focused mainly on teaching, and choral conducting.
[Below: a promotional photograph of Sarah Coburn, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
At OCU, I began to learn the craft of opera, and how to sing on stage (something I will always be working on!) My first operatic role in graduate school was Norina in Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale”, after which I sang Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata”, Rose in Weill’s “Street Scene”, and Magda in Puccini’s “La Rondine”. The roles were not necessarily appropriate for me at that time in my development, but I will always be grateful for the opportunity to jump in and perform leading roles, something I might not have been able to do at a larger conservatory.
Wm: You were a National Grand Finalists in the Metropolitan Opera Competition of 2001. What opportunities did that recognition open up for you?
SC: It opened up several doors, mainly just from those words “National Grand Finals, Metropolitan Opera” being on my resume. Several young artist programs had rejected my applications prior to that experience, and I do think companies paid more attention to me because of the MONC. When I did the competition, I was 23 and clueless. I don’t remember that much about the actual concert, except being pretty terrified; I still had many miles to go.
Wm: In 2007, you sang the role of Princess Yueyang in Tan Dun’s “The First Emperor” in its world premiere season at the New York Met. You sang the last two performances of the role Elizabeth Futral created for the premiere. This provided you with an opportunity to sing opposite Placido Domingo. In 2008, the opera was revived by the Met and you were Yueyang for all performances.
You also were singing Asteria in Handel’s “Tamerlano” at Washington National Opera opposite Domingo. You have now appeared with him in New York, Washington and Los Angeles in several roles.What have you learned from working with this great artist so closely and so often?
[Below: Placido Domingo as Bajazet and Sarah Coburn as Asteria in Handel’s “Tamerlano”; edited image, based on a Karin Cooper photograph for the Washington National Opera.]
SC: No one works harder than Placido Domingo. I have so much respect for his work ethic, his encouragement of young singers, his commitment to every detail of his performance, and his attitude toward his colleagues on stage. It has been such a thrill being able to work with him. The first night that I went on as Yue-Yang in 2007, I was pretty much jumping in, having had no stage rehearsal.
I vividly remember looking up and realizing at that moment where I was and with whom I was singing. The thought was something like, “What the..???…there is Placido Domingo and he is singing right in my face and OH MY GOSH, four thousand people are watching us…OK, got it, now get back into character, Sarah!”
One of my favorite things about him is that he is human. He gets nervous, just like the rest of us peons, and he is extremely humble. He is still Placido Domingo, though, and no one will ever touch him.
Wm: The first time I saw you was in the Tulsa Opera production of Delibes’ “Lakme”. You may be aware that I am a huge partisan of that opera, and that I hope to see you sing it again in other venues. What do you think of the opera? And what do you think of the Tulsa Opera mounting it for you to celebrate its 60th anniversary and your debut at that house?
SC: I was extremely thankful for the opportunity to sing Lakme, and I hope I get to sing it again, soon. I love singing in Tulsa, because it is home. I am sorry “Lakme” is not done more often, because it is the most gorgeous score. Maybe the plot is not the strongest, but that is also the case of many operas that are done pretty regularly.
SC: You recently sang Rosina in Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” at Seattle Opera with Lawrence Brownlee as Count Almaviva and you sang the role 13 months earlier at Los Angeles Opera with Dmitry Korchak as the Count.
[Below: Rosina (Sarah Coburn) is being courted by Count Almaviva (Dmitry Korchak) who is disguised as Lindoro, disguised as a music teacher; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
I am an admirer of both Brownlee and Korchak. Both tenors, like Juan Diego Florez, sing the difficult aria Cessa di piu resistere in the opera’s final scene. As a coloratura soprano, is it more fun to have tenors with coloratura flexibility singing opposite you, or do you feel they steal Rosina’s coloratura thunder?
SC: I love a challenge! It is always better when the bar is raised; when my colleagues are amazing singers, I feel energized and I push myself a bit more. Both of those guys are amazing singers. Larry has been a friend for 10 years, and it was quite a hoot working together this time.
[Below: Rosina (Sarah Coburn) is being courted by Count Almaviva (Lawrence Brownlee), who is disguised as Lindoro disguised as a music teacher; edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
Wm: You have been quoted as admitting to bouts of stage fright earlier in your career, for whom you sought the counsel of Renee Fleming, another singer who had to deal with that fear. How did Fleming’s advice address that problem for you?
SC: Renee Fleming recommended a therapist (that she also mentioned in her book) who specializes in these issues. The work we did was unbelievably helpful, and I am so thankful that I made that sort of investment in my career. It can be extremely stressful to deal with the pressure of singing leading roles, and it is freeing to know that other people in the profession deal with the same issues.
I will always be open and honest about it, and I am thankful that Renee was so transparent about her struggle in her book; I know it has helped countless young singers.
Wm: Over the past couple of years you have traveled with your new daughter, Katie Rose, who will soon be a presumably very lively two-year old. Balancing home and a career can be a challenge for any working mother, but seems especially challenging with an opera singer’s travel, rehearsal and performance schedules. How do you manage it?
SC: It is very difficult. My heart wants to be in two places at once. Actually, that is not really true. I mainly want to be at home. My husband is incredibly supportive and comes to see us on the road whenever he can, but it is still difficult.
[Below: Sarah Coburn as Gilda in Verdi’s “Rigoletto”, in the performance in which her unborn child, Katie Rose, made her Portland opera debut; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph for the Portland Opera.]
I hired a wonderful nanny who travels with me when I am working. We have been on the road since Katie Rose was five weeks old and she took her 30th flight last week. I think I could write a book on traveling with a baby.
Wm: What are your favorite roles, and which roles would you like to add in the future. Are there roles that you plan to eliminate from your repertoire?
SC: Let’s see. I feel that Gilda in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” is beginning to be in my blood, since I sang the role non-stop for seven months last year and I will sing my sixth Gilda this coming summer in Cincinnati, so yes, she is a favorite. I love the entire opera.
[Below: Rigoletto (George Gagnidze) cautions his daughter Gilda (Sarah Coburn) not to leave the house; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
I feel so lucky when I am singing Gilda, because I don’t have that much Verdi in my repertoire and it is just better music and better drama that most of my roles. (No offense, Gaetano, Gioachino and Vincenzo!) I do love singing Lucia in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” and Rosina. I am singing my first Amina in Bellini’s “Sonnambula” in Vienna, and I have only sung Elvira (Bellini’s “I Puritani”) in concert, but I would love to sing it on stage.
I have several Maries (Donizetti’s “La fille du Regiment”) in the future, and a Manon (Massenet’s “Manon”) that keeps getting postponed. I will sing my first Juliette (Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette”) in Miami next season, and I would love to sing Giulietta (Bellini’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi) again.
[Below: Romeo (Sandra Piques, above) pledges his love to Giulietta (Sarah Coburn) looks on; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, for the Glimmerglass Opera.]
I would also love to sing Cleopatra (Handel’s “Giulio Cesare”) and Konstanze (Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio”) – though Blondchen (from Mozart “Abduction”) – never again!).
Wm: Are there artists that you particularly admire and that you especially enjoy working with?
SC: Yes! Any time I can sing with Larry Brownlee, I am happy. I have also sung a couple of really fun concerts with Bryn Terfel; I have never seen someone so comfortable with an audience.
Some of my favorite memories on stage have been duets with mezzos Stephanie Blythe and Patricia Bardon – amazing singers and colleagues. I worked with James Conlon for the first time this season, and I learned a great deal from him. I would also love to work with Eduardo Müller again. Two young conductors that I think are amazing are Pablo Heras-Casado and Jean-Marie Zeitouni.
Wm: Thank you, Sarah!
Wm: For my reviews of Sarah Coburn’s performances that have appeared on this website, see:
Sarah Coburn’s Ravishing Tulsa Opera Lakme – February 29, 2008, and,
Domingo’s Towering “Tamerlano” Bajazet: Los Angeles Opera – November 22, 2009, and,
Korchak, Coburn and Meachem Illuminate Alternate “Barber of Seville” Cast – Los Angeles Opera, December 5, 2009, and,
Conlon Conducts Musically Impressive “Rigoletto” – Los Angeles Opera, December 2, 2010