By Denise Stewart
For The Birmingham Times
When she was five years old, Diamond Sparks stepped up to the microphone at Piney Grove Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa and sang Amazing Grace. Now at 16, the rising junior at the Alabama School of Fine Arts (AFSA) is preparing for the concert of the lifetime – singing in the 2017 Honors Performance Series Choir in Sydney, Australia.
For Diamond, a mezzo soprano, singing brings release, relaxation and freedom.
“If I’ve been tense all day, I can go on stage and breathe, and feel relaxed,” she said Monday before singing the National Anthem at a program for the American Legion Booker T. Oliver Post 347 in Fairfield.
Singing also carries Diamond beyond some of the hurdles in her life. Seven years ago, she lost her dad to cancer, and last year she lost her mom to heart failure.
“I keep singing because I know that’s what they would want me to do,” Diamond says.
Getting to Sydney, a 9,136-mile journey from Fairfield which takes more than a day’s journey and at least 26 hours in total travel time by air, also has presented challenges. She needs to raise $6,000 and still is about $2,000 short with the trip about five weeks away.
Then there’s the problem with securing a passport. Her grandmother and guardian Mary Willis says the process has taken longer than expected. “I have the death certificates from her parents, and I have explained that I am now Diamond’s guardian. I’m hoping we can get everything in place soon, because we don’t have much time.”
Willis is Diamond’s chief cheerleader, and doubles as a chauffeur.
“That first time she sang, her mother, my daughter Pamela Willis Sparks, called me and said momma, you have to hear Diamond sing Amazing Grace and Precious Lord,” Willis said. “I heard her, and knew there was something special.”
Diamond attended elementary and middle school in Fairfield, but the family decided that ASFA would be the best place to continue training her voice, so she prepared for the audition with hopes of going there in the seventh grade.
“The first time I auditioned, they told me no. They shut me down,” she said. “At that point, I was done with it, even though they encouraged me to try again the next year. I was like, no. But my grandmother was determined for me to go there, and she said, ‘no, you’re doing it.’”
Persistence and determination paid off Diamond said. Her ASFA education has opened the door for more training and performance experiences.
“I performed at the BJCC and we sang at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival for an event where the governor was present,” she said. “It looked like every seat in the auditorium was filled.”
When she sings in the Sydey Opera House, that will be the biggest stage of her life, so far.
Diamond began professional voice training as a child, and when she 12, she began working with the renowned lyric soprano Ruth Randall-Eaton. It was Randall-Eaton who nominated Diamond for the Honors Performance Series Choir.
“When I heard Diamond the first time, I said, okay we’re going someplace,” Randall-Eaton said. “When kids come to me, I have the responsibility to make sure they are nurtured. I think about, what can we do with this voice?”
Under Randall-Eaton’s tutelage, Diamond took on roles in local productions of Porgy and Bess and Amahl and the Night Visitors, both major works of opera.
“Diamond was born to entertain,” Randall-Eaton said. “When she was 12, she performed in the musical Ruthless. She took that challenge, and was bitten by the performance bug.”
The challenge now is to make sure Diamond not get bored. “She’s going to take that challenge,” Randall-Eaton says, because she likes expanding her repertoire and seeking new experiences.
Diamond enjoys classical, gospel and R&B music, but she likes Italian operas most, because of the beauty of the language. Her first Italian piece was Gia il sol Dal Gange, and she has learned others since that time.
Diamond’s grandmother, Mary Willis, enjoys hearing her sing whatever music she performs, but her favorite songs are the two she sang as a child – Amazing Grace and Precious Lord.
Willis says Diamond is self-motivated, and works hard on academic work and music performance. “She has to stay in the books to keep those grades up,” Willis said. “I do all I can to support her.”
Diamond learned in October that she had been accepted into the Honors Choir in Sydney. Shortly after, they launched a crowdfunding page on GoFundMe.
“For months, we didn’t get anything, not even a penny.” Willis said. Then Diamond received a $1,000 donation from a group called the Couples Club. Word began to spread about Diamond’s efforts, and money and support started trickling in.
She leaves Birmingham on July 5, and the choir events will be July 7-12.
On her crowdfunding page, Diamond says:
“I am soliciting your prayers for me as I endeavor to make a dream come true. Please pray that I receive the contributions needed, for safe travels and kind and loving hearts among the people I will meet and have contact with. I am trusting God in this effort and hope that you will be able to help.”
This experience in Sydney, she believes, will be the first of many more big performances in the future.
Here’s a link to Diamond’s GoFundMe page: https://www.gofundme.com/diamonds-australia-fund