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
An appetite for risk
Upshaw has never been afraid of immersing herself in the compositions she performs. One of her riskiest choices lay in committing to perform Kaija Saariaho’s bleak oratorio on Simone Weil. The French activist and philosopher died at 34 in New York during the second World War from an illness generally attributed to her decision to drastically ration her food intake in solidarity with those living in occupied France.
It was an extreme role even for Upshaw’s fearlessness and curiosity, and it was complicated by the fact that Upshaw was diagnosed with breast cancer during rehearsals in 2006.
She persisted nonetheless, and two years later gave a devastating 75-minute performance. It was hardly the prescribed recovery advice for someone recovering from life-threatening illness. For the first time, Upshaw’s face clouds a little when she recalls that period.
“As much as I admire and am honoured to work with Kaija, it was a very, very difficult time. Sometimes life is like that. And with music . . . It can be hard to reconnect with the world. I remember working on Debussy’s opera, Pelléas and Mélisande. It was the first time I had sung the part of Mélisande. I felt like it was a new relationship in my life, like I was having an intimate relationship with this piece. And it was bizarre. Like an infatuation. I wanted to live and breathe it. It was very hard for me to engage with the rest of the world. That piece is sort of dark.”
If she has learned anything, it is how to exorcise both the characters and the emotions of the music when she leaves rehearsals or when the curtains falls.
“With Donnacha’s piece and others, I can be there in the moment and then put it aside. I don’t use music to channel all the darkness in my life. Because I have had difficulties – like we all have – with relationships, with loss, with my health, I can connect in the moment in a deep and sometimes dark way. But I can keep it where it is not a part of me every moment.”
Her performance at the Kilkenny Arts Festival will be her first solo concert in Ireland. It ought to be unforgettable, with St Canice’s cathedral as the setting and Charles Ives and Franz Schubert featuring on an eclectic bill. But if you happen to see her in a cafe in the Marble City, she is just as likely to be humming along to the latest Beyoncé single.
“It’s true. And I hope that never changes! The bigger the world for me, the better musician I am.”
Dawn Upshaw performs with Crash Ensemble at St Canice’s Cathedral as part of Kilkenny Arts Festival on Friday, August 16, kilkennyarts.ie