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
Grammys and Gorécki
Her career as a soprano seems to have been composed by a guardian angel, from her acceptance into the Met’s training programme after college to her 1993 recording of Henryk Gorécki’s Symphony Number 3, which sold more than a million copies and earned her the first of four Grammy awards.
“It was unheard of for a new classical piece to sell like that then. It is simple – direct in its message and beauty. It is really well-crafted and it goes straight to the heart. Henryk had no idea it would reach such a large audience. And I think it was overwhelming for him.”
Away from the applause and the bouquets, she admits that forging a life in the relentlessly demanding world of opera was tough. She moved to New York in the late 1980s, and lived near Columbia University during a period when that neighbourhood had its share of dubious charms. She was young, more than a thousand miles from home, and the initial bedazzlement at being associated with the Met began to wear off.
“I think, for one thing, it is very hard to be completely open and exposed. To be vulnerable in front of an audience is scary. Learning how to sing well takes a lot of time and study. And the competition can by frightening. It affects your everyday habits and the relationships in your life.”
Upshaw doesn’t perform opera all that frequently any more, and when she talks about her years with the Met it is with a combination of fondness and frustration.
“The Met is great, and it has amazing acoustics . . . but it is huge. When I do opera now, certainly the libretto and character development are a very important part of the concept. Unfortunately opera gets a bad rap because a lot of times it is just thrown together and . . . the direction is not so great. I think in general classical music is stronger now but since the crash, there are companies that are really struggling after a boom period . . . I would love to see more opera on a smaller scale.”
The main reason she performs less opera now is that she is too busy seeking new sounds and ways of performing music. Composers write works specifically with her voice in mind.
Osvaldo Golijov, an Argentinian composer who fuses influences and instruments from ethnic and cultural traditions, has written the opera Ainadamar and several other pieces for Upshaw. Gilbert Kalish, the lauded American pianist whose career started under the tutelage of Isabelle Vengerova, has performed with Upshaw for more than two decades and will be on stage with her in Kilkenny.
Upshaw was familiar with Donnacha Dennehy’s work long before she met him, and she says that when she first heard Grá agus Bás she was immediately seized by the sense of needing to live and breathe the music. That sense of “needing” to sing a piece of music is something she always asks her students at Bard College to seek within themselves.
“It becomes more meaningful if I feel like I must sing it. So 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.”
He Wishes his Beloved Were Dead opens Dennehy’s song cycle exploring six WB Yeats poems. Upshaw moves from spoken word to song and from low, velvety tones to the gorgeous sonic flight that can shrink even the loftiest auditorium. All of this is shot through with Celtic ambiguity, with Dennehy using isolated and repeated notes to mirror the language.