American soprano Dawn Upshaw occupies a special place among today's classical music singers. A four-time Grammy winner and an accomplished Mozartean, she also excels in modern music by Poulenc, Stravinsky and Messiaen. Her 1992 recording of Henryk Gorecki's Symphony No. 3, also known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, sold more than one million copies. Intellectually curious, she's committed to the music of her own generation and has premiered over 25 new works in the past decade.
In 2007, Upshaw was named a fellow of the MacArthur Foundation. She is director of the vocal arts program at the Bard College Conservatory of Music in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., and on Aug. 7, it was announced she is one of five recipients of the 2012 Opera News awards.
Upshaw, who turned 52 in July, will be in Montreal on Aug. 16 to give a master class at the Canadian Vocal Arts Institute. CBC Music reached her by telephone at her home outside New York City.
Q: Congratulations on your Opera News award. How do you feel about it?
A: Getting recognition for your work and feeling like it's appreciated by people is both gratifying and meaningful, because we put a lot of love and time into what is important to us.
I've been pretty particular all through my professional life with my choices in what I've sung, and not sung, in opera. I have not really made opera the central point of my work, so whatever opera I took on was really important to me, especially in the last 10 years or so. And so, [given] the fact that I don't spend 100 per cent of my time singing opera, it was especially meaningful to me that I was thought of for this award.
A concert performance from 1996 of Susanna's aria Deh, vieni, non tardar from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro.
Q: Why is contemporary music so important to you?
A: I'm not trying to champion new music per se. I'm actually doing the music that I find interesting and that I love. Yes, I do a lot of new music, and I was doing that from an early age in college. I was working with a teacher who also loved being involved in the process of working with a composer, and so I was eager to premiere pieces in college, and that has just continued. For me, it makes total sense to be involved in the music of my own time. It feels vital, it feels important, and I feel like I'm living in my own century and my own decade. Obviously, there are masterpieces that have been a real blessing to my life, like Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro for example, but it has also been a blessing and a privilege to be singing music by composers of my own generation.
Sometimes it's exciting when I'm working with a composer who's eager to know what doesn't feel quite right and to respond to my own strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. And I really appreciate those moments. There have also been times when a composer has written something for me, and I have said, "That is beautiful just the way you have written it. I will do my best with it. But a voice that's more agile than mine, perhaps, or higher than mine, would actually be able to sing this more easily, but I still want to give it a go."
Q: Twenty years have passed since you released your recording of Henryk Gorecki's Symphony No. 3. Why was it such a success?
A: I think it came at a particular time when people were needing it, for whatever reason, needing ... a piece of music that brings comfort or redemption, a sense of hope. And I think that's what you hear so clearly in that piece. Through the pain and through the wounds of which it's speaking and that it's expressing, there's a beauty that is comforting and soothing. And I think that's what people were struck by at the time.
Q: How do you sing it without breaking down?
A: A lot of people assume that I performed this work live a lot. I only did three performances of it live, and I found them all incredibly difficult. It was a completely different experience from having done it in the studio. I even was uncomfortable with the idea of presenting it to a public in a setting that seemed to make it less personal somehow. It was hard. And of course it was hard, dramatically, to "stay in it" without falling apart. I have turned down opportunities to perform it live because it is such a challenge to me. It's hard to sustain and to give all that it requires for that length of time. And then when you're done you're just so spent emotionally.
An excerpt from a documentary film about the making of the Nonesuch recording of Gorecki's Symphony No. 3.
Q: How do you face the physical challenges of sustaining a long career?
A: I really feel like my body has changed a lot since my breast cancer diagnosis [five years ago] and the treatments. And then I had another cancer, completely unrelated to it, that just sort of stopped me in my tracks about a year ago, but which is taken care of. So, luckily, I seem to be in good health, but I'm trying to find my way back to feeling completely myself, physically.
My challenge, along with aging, has been dealing with some pretty serious health issues. However, partly through the need to rearrange my schedule [through these illnesses] I have sung slightly fewer performances each year, and that has been fantastic for my voice. I have actually felt, vocally, like I'm singing better than I have in a long time, and more easily. Go figure. I guess something else in your body goes wrong, so you stop worrying about your throat! [laughs] And so I'm actually trying now to keep to this new schedule, which is not a huge difference, but it's enough of a difference that I just feel more relaxed. I have always enjoyed singing, but there's also an endurance factor.
Anne Trulove's aria No word from Tom from a 1992 production of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress in Aix-en-Provence.
Q: Looking back at your career, what would you identify as your breakthrough?
A: I never really had an image of the singer I wanted to become. I sort of felt like I was constantly opening new rooms in a house, and discovering, whether it was repertoire, or a colleague, or some part of myself I didn't know I could use to express something. And I think for me personally, a really big moment was working on Olivier Messiaen's opera Saint François d’Assise. It was the first time I met Peter Sellars, it was the first time I met Esa-Pekka Salonen, and it was the first time I was really digging into the music of Messiaen. It was a spiritual journey and really turned me around in awe of so many things. Artistically speaking, it was one of the biggest moments for me.
Q: What do you enjoy the most about your work with young singers?
A: Actually, I find it incredibly refreshing. We're very fortunate at Bard [College Conservatory] to have a small program, and we really work hard on bringing out all the differences in these students. We all become quite close, and what's so interesting to me is this new generation of singer: Our program seems to be drawing some really imaginative young musicians who are responding to this very different world, the world of the internet, and connecting with one another through social media. It's so broad. I would be intimidated by it myself, but they're living and thriving in it. I'm just kind of stunned by their imagination.
Another thing I love about working with young singers is that I truly believe that each one of them has something new to say. If we have chosen them for the program, we're interested in something unique about them. They are an inspiration to me. I feel like I'm constantly evolving, not just as a musician, but as a human being. I believe in the importance of change and of flexibility in ideas, and so to work with new young artists all the time, it's a constant reminder of that.
Q: What's the best way for a student to approach a master class?
A: I would tell our students at Bard: don't sing for anyone if you don't connect with that person's message or the way they sing. I don't like the idea of students coming to a master class just to show an audience what they've got. I like to think about them as a workshop. The best times that I've had at master classes have been so open that there'll be a bit of discussion at the end of it from the audience too. To really have a dialogue about things. I don't like the idea of my having some sort of "secret knowledge" that I need to divulge. And I don't like the idea of it being a performance opportunity for either the so-called "master" or the student.
An excerpt from a 2009 master class given by Upshaw at Bard College Conservatory. Upshaw and her student are working on Claude Debussy's Spleen, a song from Ariettes oubliées.
Dawn Upshaw will give a master class on Thursday, Aug. 16, at 7:30 p.m. at McGill University's Redpath Hall in Montreal. Tickets are $30 ($20 seniors, $10 students). Full details are available at the Canadian Vocal Arts Institute website.
Are you a Dawn Upshaw fan? Do you have a favourite recording? Have you seen her perform? Let us know about it in the comments below.
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on Aug 10, 2012