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


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.”

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.

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