News - The Reluctant Diva

The Reluctant Diva

The Reluctant Diva

The venue for Sarah (Coleman '06) Toth's performance under the bridge at 83rd and Figueroa Streets in Los Angeles was hardly ideal. Traffic rumbled overhead, and distant sirens wailed. The ministry team that invited the soprano to sing, however, had prayed for God's presence and blessing on the Bible study that regularly convened beneath the overpass, and the prostitutes and other street people it drew.

"I sang a simple piece, there, under the bridge where the sound could resonate and carry over the sirens," Sarah recalls. Her clear, even tones filled the night and lingered in the memories of her listeners. Months later, they still talk about Sarah's gift and ask when she will return.

"The encompassing sound of a live classical voice can touch you in a deep place," she shared later. "It is tangible, physical. It brings joy. Many people have never heard a live operatic sound before. Those are the best people to sing for."

Sarah is grateful for such opportunities. They remind her how the Holy Spirit blesses others through her voice, an instrument she has meticulously studied, practiced, critiqued, and polished in classrooms and on stage. She currently dedicates 12 hours each day to post-graduate studies in opera at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in Australia and preparation for her lead role as Elisetta in the Conservatory's upcoming production of Il Matrimonio Segreto (The Secret Marriage) by Domenico Cimarosa.

The constant assessment of her vocal skills is demanding, but Sarah enjoys the opportunities it presents for solving problems. "I love talking with speech therapists," she confesses. "We have to know the same things about vowel and consonant formation, what the tongue does, what the jaw does. I love figuring out just the right way to deliver a phrase so that it is beautiful and communicates the text and intention of the words and the music."

She sifts through hours of instruction stored in her memory and recordings she keeps of her voice lessons for solutions to vocal problems that arise. "It could be as simple as my jaw gripping on this 'm' when I sing 'amore,' creating tension that prevents a successful high note."

Thorough preparation clears up more than uncertainties about vocal technique for Sarah. Coaching sessions from various experts help her learn how to express the music and enhance the message with movement and acting. Language studies ensure her fluency in Italian, French and German. Dance plays a part. She even dips into psychology to identify the personality types of the characters she plays. "Opera is so multidisciplinary," she says. "When it's done well, it can be very exciting."

"Well done" for Sarah and her opera colleagues comes as the result of continual analysis of their skills followed by self-correction. Sarah likens the process to an athlete immersed in training, but she finds the self-centered image unsettling. "It's difficult to know how to live by faith," she says, "in a discipline that is all about 'me.'"

The daughter of Free Methodist missionaries Jerry '84 and Jan (Kamp '80) Coleman, Sarah benefited from frequent exposure to God's Word in her formative years. She engaged her talents in church by leading worship and playing guitar, piano, and flute. Still, she credits her college experience as making that faith her own. "GC helped me think through my faith and claim what I believe," she explains. Sarah now finds herself repeating that process. This time, however, she is determining her identity as a Christian opera performer committed to excellence in her craft.

"The discipline of singing tells you to focus on yourself and spend hours practicing so you can be better; it's always me, me, me," she says. Sarah has learned instead, to shift her internal spotlight from "me, the performer and rising star," to "me, God's child and channel for His glory." The humble approach opposes the usual image of opera's self-absorbed diva, but Sarah likes the doors of understanding it opens.

She now sees practice as equipping her voice to be the best possible channel for God's use. She sees performance as an opportunity, primed with prayer, for God to fill her with His glory and pour that glory out on her listeners, no matter what is on their hearts, no matter the language in which she sings, no matter the words of the song or that the venue is just folding chairs under a bridge with traffic rumbling overhead and distant sirens wailing.

"Performing, by itself, is empty and one-dimensional," she observes, "but by allowing the Holy Spirit to work through me, it can touch people deeply. It can reveal things in their hearts and uncover secrets."

For Sarah, there is joy in performance when the breath flows freely, the notes come easily, and critics pronounce the music "glorious." Yet, the vibrant soprano keeps it all in perspective with this thought: singing that wins a rousing ovation today is a mere shadow of the singing that will fill God's eternal kingdom. Sarah knows that the best singing is yet to come.

Click here to read more about Sarah.

-Photo by Kristin Coleman

This story was published on July 02, 2013

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