- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 22, 2007

Engaging, witty, poised, intelligent and stunningly attractive, coloratura soprano Sarah Coburn lights up a room the moment she enters.

But that’s not what’s important to connoisseurs who treasure the Washington Concert Opera’s twice-yearly performances. They’ll eagerly pack Lisner Auditorium tomorrow evening to hear how Miss Coburn will handle the challenging role of Elvira in a concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s “I Puritani.”

Miss Coburn’s parents — Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and his wife, Carolyn, a former Miss Oklahoma — also are expected to attend.

Praised in Newsweek for her “silvery soprano voice,” Miss Coburn will perform opposite brilliant tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who will sing Arturo. WCO regulars will recall their attention-grabbing performance last spring — her first with the company — in Rossini’s rarely heard “Tancredi.”

Miss Coburn relishes the opportunity to sing Elvira in a concert opera setting. While “I Puritani” is prized for its exquisite score, it’s routinely panned for its implausible libretto.

“But in a concert performance,” she says, “you get to focus on the beautiful music and not the silliness of the plotline.” Elvira is “a really meaty bel canto role,” she says. It’s “very melodramatic and filled with craziness. Elvira gets to have not one mad scene, but two.”

Miss Coburn confesses that when she was growing up, “opera wasn’t really on my mind.” In fact, she saw her first opera barely 10 years ago and never imagined opera as a career. However, she was always interested in music, having sung in her church choir and in high school musicals as well. It was not entirely surprising that she decided to attend Oklahoma State University to earn a music education degree, focusing on choral conducting and elementary music.

Her undergraduate voice teacher, Julie McCoy, saw something special and encouraged her to pursue a performance career. Ignored by better-known graduate programs, she enrolled at Oklahoma City University. There she studied with Larry Keller, “who gave me great encouragement and affirmation,” Miss Coburn says.

Awarded her master’s degree in 2000, she won a National Grand Finalist award in the 2001 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. She made solo appearances and graduated to larger roles with smaller companies, including the Wolf Trap Opera. She further burnished her credentials singing at Glimmerglass, the Seattle Opera and the New York City Opera.

Her career received a tre-mendous boost last season when she sang the major role of Princess Yueyang in the Metropolitan Opera’s world-premiere performances of Tan Dun’s “The First Emperor,” which starred Placido Domingo.

“It was a trial by fire,” she remembers, “but it was lots of fun, a surreal experience working with Placido onstage.” The Met will repeat a revised version of the opera in the spring with Miss Coburn and Mr. Domingo reprising their signature roles.

While rehearsing “The First Emperor,” Miss Coburn and Mr. Domingo will commute to the District, where she’ll make her Washington National Opera debut singing Asteria in Handel’s “Tamerlano” opposite Mr. Domingo’s Bajazet.

“It’ll be rehearsals in New York in the morning and performances in D.C. at night,” she says with a laugh.

Now 29 and a resident of New York City, Miss Coburn seems poised for a brilliant operatic career. Still single, she recently has found room in her life for a new relationship “with someone who’s not a singer. He’s wonderful. He brings me into the real world,” she says.

But in New York’s politically liberal artistic community, could her famously conservative, pork-busting father become an issue in her career? Miss Coburn doesn’t think so.

“Wherever you go, you can come across a lot of hypocritical intolerance,” she says. “While some disagree with my father on social issues, a lot really agree with him on our fiscal irresponsibility. His heart is 100 percent in the right place. He’s the answer to many things that are wrong in Washington. I’m totally proud of my dad.

“Opera is a strange career,” she continues. “It’s hard to get into and hard to get started. But it pays the bills,” she says, laughing. “Actually, I feel very blessed to have a great job and remember how lucky I am to be surrounded by music for a living.”

WHAT: Washington Concert Opera’s production of Bellini’s “I Puritani”

WHERE: Lisner Auditorium, 21st and H Streets Northwest

WHEN: Tomorrow at 6 p.m.

TICKETS: $45 to $90

INFORMATION: 202/364-5826

WEB SITE: www.concertopera.org.

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