The coloratura soprano Sarah Coburn makes her Santa Barbara debut this Friday and Sunday in Opera Santa Barbara’s Manon. Massenet’s popular classic offers sopranos one of the most challenging roles in the standard repertoire. It’s a five-act feast of ravishing late-19th-century French music, and the title character, who appears in almost every scene, is a classic example of the type known as a demimondaine — an irresistible young woman who loses her reputation through lack of guidance and a susceptibility to passion, and thus can never again be accepted in polite society. Massenet was one of several composers who adapted the Abbé Prévost novel for the operatic stage, and despite significant competition from no less a rival than Puccini, Massenet’s version remains a favorite worldwide, especially among those who prefer the more lyrical French approach to the form.
When I spoke with Coburn last week by phone, she was delighted to be back together with one of her favorite conductors, Kostis Protopapas. They collaborated at Tulsa Opera, where Protopapas was involved first as associate conductor and chorusmaster from 2001-2007, and then as artistic director and eventually executive director from 2007-2013. Coburn also has deep roots in that area, as she graduated from Oklahoma State University and her father, Tom Coburn, was the state’s junior United States Senator from 2005-2015. At a young age, Sarah Coburn won recognition for her singing through the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions, and she made her Met debut in 2007 as Princess Yue-Yang in the world premiere production of Tan Dun’s The First Emperor.
Now, a decade later, Coburn commands leading roles with the world’s top companies, including a turn in the title part of Lucia di Lamermoor at Glimmerglass Opera in New York. As for the role of Manon, Coburn said that she was excited to be taking it on for the first time here in Santa Barbara, and that she was thrilled that she “waited to do it because it requires such stamina.” Her preparation included reading the original novel for clues as to the heroine’s personality and motivations, a study from which she learned that “Massenet’s treatment is much softer. Manon is much more badly behaved in the novel, and the character of her lover, des Grieux, is more fully developed.” Asked whether she believed that Manon deserved to have her life shattered so completely on account of what she had done, Coburn replied that it was painful “to see her stripped of all those things that she wanted,” but that in a way this was necessary to reveal the real person beneath.
“When I think about what Manon goes through, I try to remember what it’s like to be her age,” said Coburn. “I picture myself at 18 going off to college,” she added, and that helps to discover the life of this vulnerable young woman. Acts Three and Four represent a “marathon” for the singer in terms of their vocal demands, but, Coburn hastened to add, “one thing is for certain about this character — she’s never dull.” Opera Santa Barbara will undoubtedly pull out all the stops with sumptuous Belle Époque costumes and multiple gorgeous sets to represent the various luxurious interiors through which Manon pursues her dreams of love and comfort.
Opera Santa Barbara’s Manon plays Friday, November 3, 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, November 5, 2:30 p.m., at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.). Call 899-2222 or visit operasb.org.