Dawn Upshaw’s trajectory: no airs or graces
Dawn Upshaw has had a stellar opera career but she’s not in the business of making the music rarefied and is just as likely to be heard humming Beyoncé
Dawn Upshaw: ‘I say that to students: if you don’t feel like you must sing, then maybe there is something else you are meant to be doing.’ Photograph: Dario Acosta
Above: Dawn Upshaw with Jerry Hadley in the Met’s The Great Gatsby in 1999. Photograph: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
On a suitably forbidding Friday evening in May, Carnegie Hall presented a programme featuring Ireland’s Crash Ensemble, which included, in a final song cycle, Dawn Upshaw performing Donnacha Dennehy’s He Wishes His Beloved Were Dead. This dark dream of a composition seemed in keeping with the soul and mood of many of the pieces that Upshaw has not so much sung as brought to life over her years as one of the US’s most original and recognisable sopranos.
Some two months after that concert, she is still enthused by memories of the evening, chatting animatedly about Dennehy and, in particular, about Iarla Ó’Lionáird’s rendition of Grá agus Bás, which he sang while having someone help count the score. “He was just marvellous, and to do that . . . I felt it must have taken him a while to become accustomed to the piece but I was so impressed with these totally different worlds which he brought together. I thought that was cool.”
Despite soaring through the world of opera since her early 20s, Upshaw has retained a distinctly midwestern cheerfulness and generosity of spirit and, in her own subtle way, she has tried to portray classical music as just another form. She once said that, having grown up immersed in folk and popular music, she has always tried to approach classical pieces in the same way.
“I think in classical music – perhaps because we are repeating very old music . . . something about the distance and not having the composers around to talk about it means that it is put up on a pedestal and regarded as unapproachable and perfectionism rather than reflecting life – which is anything but perfect. That distance can make it harder to connect more deeply. And I am always eager to bring it down to earth. The people who wrote that music were all too human with their own struggles.”
This conversation takes place on a dazzling lunchtime in Bronxville, a quaint village about 10 miles outside New York that feels more like 10,000 away. It is close to where Upshaw lives with her family. “Occasionally people recognise me and come up to talk, which is nice. But I am perfectly happy not to have that attention.”
Instead, her concerns are more grounded – her main task for this afternoon is one common to most mothers: keeping an eye out for a text message from her son detailing where and when he needs her to collect him.
Upshaw has two children approaching college age; while both are musical, neither wishes to pursue the form as a life choice. She sounds as if she feels that might be the perfect compromise: to have music in your life without being fully possessed by it. Growing up outside Chicago in the 1970s, she listened to everyone from Barbara Streisand to Crosby, Stills and Nash, and if she could have had any musical life, she would have wanted to be Joni Mitchell.
“I just had absolutely no talent for songwriting,” she laughs. But the family LPs and her parents’ easy gift for music – “both have lovely voices” – and their enjoyment of it remained with her after she had discovered the range of her vocal prowess.
“I didn’t know anything about classical music in high school. I went to one opera, The Barber of Seville, in Chicago and didn’t like it very much. I didn’t consider myself a wonderful singer or anything . . . just that it felt good and right for me to express myself that way. And once I began to take it seriously, people began to take me a little more seriously.”