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Grace Refined
Soprano Pamela Coburn

by Melissa Ramb

In May of 2001, I was in Philadelphia, planning to attend a performance at the Academy of Music featuring Renée Fleming singing Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs. I had never seen Fleming in concert, so I was looking forward to the performance—and was disappointed when I received notice that she had cancelled due to illness. Soprano Pamela Coburn was tapped to fill in for the ailing soprano and, in the words of one critic, Coburn’s brilliance, “made us all forget about the absence of Fleming. Pamela Coburn has a quiet and gentle conception of these very moving songs … her performance was one of intense sobriety and dignity, as befits the solemnity of the work.”

What I recall from that afternoon was the intimacy of Coburn’s performance, how her use of pianissimo, her quiet refinement, her command of the stage, and her impeccable sense of pitch brought me to the edge of my seat.

Before that afternoon, I was unaware of this brilliant artist and her incredible international career. Her performance was an overwhelming success and left me with the feeling that I had encountered Strauss’ work in a new and profound way.

Admiration for Coburn’s interpretation of these songs extends far beyond that Philadelphia performance. After performing them in the Richard Strauss Festival in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, Strauss’ grandson greeted Coburn with tears in his eyes and said, “My grandfather, had he known your voice, would have written these songs for you.”

A native of Ohio, Coburn’s career and development as an artist are as fascinating as her performances. Coburn’s mother was a teacher of both singing and piano, and their home was filled with music. Despite these early advantages, Coburn recalls that she was never cast as the lead in the school musicals. She also laughs to remember the rudderless individual she was in high school—an accomplished tennis player, musician, and student who wasn’t particularly focused in any one area.

She went to college at DePauw University, where she played on the tennis team and planned to major in music education. As a sophomore, she was encouraged to audition for Le nozze di Figaro—and she broke from her traditional place in the supporting cast by landing the role of Susanna. At the time, she was conflicted: tennis team practices were held at the same time as opera rehearsals. With some nudging from her voice teacher, she quit the tennis team and accepted the role.

Coburn recalls that at the first [open] dress rehearsal she experienced a moment of complete clarity about her life. As she walked on stage in costume, heard the orchestra, felt the lights and the energy of the audience, she knew that she had found her life’s work and calling. In that moment, the power of opera transformed the young, self-described “listless” girl—and her journey towards becoming an international opera star began.

A leading lady in the opera program at DePauw, many schools recruited Coburn. She chose the Eastman School of Music, which offered her a full assistantship. Coburn speaks fondly of Eastman and her experiences there singing everything from Capriccio, Die Fledermaus, La bohème, and Così fan tutte, to Le nozze di Figaro in Eastman’s 2,300-seat theater. Dr. David B. Levy, noted Beethoven scholar and Wake Forest University professor, was also at Eastman at the time and recalls that there was a “real buzz” about Coburn. In particular, he says that her performance as the Countess was both impressive and memorable.

Coburn enjoyed Eastman so much that she had a difficult time leaving and briefly considered pursuing a doctorate there.

“The environment was so nurturing, artistically stimulating, and safe … it was very difficult for me to consider leaving. I was also afraid to move to New York!” she recalls.

Coburn says the dean of the college recognized her potential for a major operatic career and pushed her out of the nest. She was accepted into the American Opera Center at Juilliard and went on to conquer not only her fears of New York, but the Juilliard School
as well.

Upon her completion at Juilliard, Coburn achieved many of the goals of young singers: She won the 1982 Metropolitan Opera Auditions, placed third in the ARD (German Broadcasting Company) competition in Munich, and won a competition in Rio de Janeiro. A judge in Rio de Janeiro invited Coburn to participate in a two-week masterclass with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf in Wolfenbüttel, Germany.

Schwarzkopf’s notoriety for being intensely hard on young singers was not an exaggeration, Coburn says. For two weeks, Coburn endured Schwarzkopf’s biting criticism and correction, stoically refusing to be reduced to tears in front of the soprano and fellow singers. In this effort, Coburn was the sole tearless survivor, and she recalls that the concentration and resolve it took to achieve this goal produced daily migraine headaches.

Coburn was rewarded for her perseverance, however, at the completion of the masterclass, when Schwarzkopf offered Coburn the opportunity to audition for the Munich Opera House.

Coburn laughs as she recalls her own naiveté about the magnitude of this opportunity; she was far from fluent in German and eager to return home for Thanksgiving, but she made the decision to delay her return trip and sing the audition.

Munich immediately offered Coburn a contract, and for the first few months she sang numerous comprimario roles. Later that year, Carlos Kleiber auditioned and cast her to sing Rosalinde in a New Year’s Eve performance of Die Fledermaus at the Bavarian State Opera. Every day for months, Coburn coached the role and worked to master not only the music, but also the German dialect. Her performance was a resounding success and she credits it for launching her career.

For the remainder of her four-year house contract in Munich, Coburn sang only leading roles, including Fiordiligi, Pamina, the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro, Cleopatra in Julius Caesar, Alice Ford in Falstaff, and the world premiere of the opera King Ubu by the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki.

After her house contract ended, Coburn continued to live in Munich and went on to sing in every major opera house in the world at least twice. She debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 1991 as Rosalinde, and sang in Covent Garden, Vienna, Bavaria, Hamburg, Berlin, and Salzburg. She also built an extensive discography of more than 30 recordings, which include Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust,, Marcellina in Beethoven’s Fidelio, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Bruckner’s Te Deum, Lehar’s The Merry Widow, Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 and Symphony No. 8, Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2, Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Strauss’ The Gypsy Baron, Lieder of Richard Strauss, and Verdi’s Requiem.

For almost two decades, Coburn reigned in Germany as a leading lyric soprano while also enjoying an international career that included extensive concert work. She worked with some of the finest conductors—including Sir Colin Davis, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Loren Maazel, Sir Georg Solti, and Riccardo Muti—and collaborated with the operatic greats such as Luciano Pavarotti, Francisco Araiza, Kurt Moll, Reri Grist, Lucia Popp, Ruggiero Raimondi, Brigitte Fassbaender, and Suzanne Mentzer.

At the height of her career, however, Coburn felt a deep stirring in her soul to return home to the United States. So she bravely left the country that had launched her career, that had cherished her as a performer, and named her Kammersängerin, Germany’s equivalent of a dame.

When you enter Coburn’s home, there is little physical evidence of her illustrious career. A single photo above her Steinway—of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana greeting her after a performance as the Countess—suggests that this humble, refined, elegant, and talented woman has dominated the world’s major operatic and concert stages throughout her career.

Coburn’s demeanor is anything but that of a prima donna. In fact, my most pressing questions during our time together were about her amazing centeredness, the sense of peace that exudes from her, and the generosity of spirit that seems to grace her life. How is a leading soprano able to attain and maintain such grace, refinement, and humility? How is it possible to have a life marked by a strong, calm sanity in the midst of the enormous pressures of an international singing career? Coburn’s answers suggest that her personal successes, just as those in her career, are the result of hard work, good fortune, and regular seasons of refinement garnered through the challenges of both life and art.

Coburn credits her strong faith and commitment to personal introspection as the source of her peace. Like any successful singer, she has spent her career striving towards greater accomplishments within a highly competitive field. She has enjoyed the life of a revered celebrity and faced the dangers and temptations that fame often brings. Particularly in the past 10 years, however, she has sought to probe what she considers to be the most important questions for any singer to consider: Who am I? Is the essence of who I am rooted in my voice, or do I exist apart from it? What is the core of my existence? Would I be valued if I did not sing? What is my purpose in this world?

Coburn’s examinations of these questions—and of her life experiences, both the successes and failures—have brought her great wisdom.

“Nurture your insides,” she responds, when asked to share her advice with other singers. “Trust that everything works together for a reason, and find the ability to do everything with gratitude. Work on knowing that you are not what you do and take the time to learn about the spiritual side of your life.

“Don’t waste your time regretting the past; learn from it and move on. Don’t allow resentments to control you, because they will kill your voice. Whatever is in your heart comes out in your voice. Never forget how transparent you are on stage, and that it is your responsibility to be not only the finest singer, but also the finest human being that you can be.”

How does Coburn spend her time since relocating to the States? She continues to delight national and international audiences with her concert and operatic performances. Recent and upcoming engagements include concerts with The Orlando Philharmonic and the Indianapolis Chamber Concert, Tytania in a new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Teatro Colón in Argentina, and soprano soloist in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Düsseldorf.

In addition to her work as a performer, Coburn invests in the future of classical music through her students. Since her graduate school days at Eastman, she has always enjoyed teaching and recently returned to her operatic roots when she accepted the position of distinguished visiting professor at her alma mater, DePauw University. She travels weekly with her beloved Sophie, a miniature dachshund, to the Indiana campus, and beams with pride as she describes her students, their vocal progress, and their many accomplishments and awards.

Coburn is humbled by the privilege of pouring out her wisdom and experience for the benefit of these young singers. She teaches private lessons and holds weekly masterclasses for her students. She is particularly interested in the high-school voice and has enjoyed recruiting for DePauw. In addition, when at home in Florida, she devotes herself to a select number of private students and enjoys not only sharing her knowledge and experience, but the privilege of witnessing her students’ progress, their moments of revelation, and their professional successes.

The artistic greatness I first encountered on a spring afternoon in Philadelphia is authentic throughout the person and voice of Pamela Coburn. As a singer and teacher she is, undoubtedly, a resounding success. After a career that has spanned three decades, she continues to be at the top of her vocal game, performing constantly and considering where her voice is leading her next.

In her own words, to sing beautifully consistently, one must live beautifully, beyond the confines and entrapments of ego and self. This approach towards life and art seem to be Coburn’s secret to longevity and success. She is, in all respects, more than a beautiful voice; she is a beautiful person whose grace, humility, and generosity are evident not only in her singing, but in her living.

Lauded for her clear tone, agile voice, and engaging stage presence, soprano Melissa Ramb has performed in opera, oratorio, concert, and musical theatre throughout the United States and abroad. Favorite roles include Gretel (Hansel and Gretel), Pamina (The Magic Flute), Lucy (The Telephone), Genevieve (Suor Angelica), Annina (La traviata) and concert work including Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Gounod’s Gallia, Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville, Summer of 1915,” and Mozart’s “Exsultate, Jubilate.” She has toured in five productions with the Orlando Opera and currently resides in that fair city with her husband, daughter, and golden retriever.
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