Corrections or additions?
This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
October 27, 1999. All rights reserved.
For Upshaw, Music is Music, Barefoot or Not
The versatile Dawn Upshaw alights at McCarter Theater
for a recital on Monday, November 1. Her program draws on art-song
traditions in German, French, and English; includes selections composed
by "composers of my generation," as Upshaw calls them; and
dips into American musical theater. Princeton is the next to last
stop on a tour with Gilbert Kalish, pianist, that began in late September.
Interviewed by telephone from her Westchester home, Upshaw, 39, warmly
volunteers that she is looking forward to getting back to Princeton.
"It has a special place in my heart — it’s one of the first
places I worked professionally."
Sure enough, this is the same unspoiled person that U.S. 1 first talked
to shortly after her career took off (December 19, 1990). Her naturalness
stands out in the glitzy circles where she operates, and can surface
at any moment. In a recent Seattle concert, she performed in bare
feet. "I told the audience that I had had an accident, and couldn’t
get my foot into the shoe. I didn’t worry about it because, frankly,
it hurt enough so that it didn’t make sense to attempt to wear shoes."
Typically, she talks with appreciation about collaborator Kalish.
"There’s a vibrancy and energy coming from every single note that
Gil plays," she says. "He speaks so clearly through his music.
He has clear intentions and clear feelings about what he’s playing.
That comes through in his performance. He has a wide, wide range of
character, tone, mood, and color. Those are the kind of qualities
I find most interesting in any musician — not holding back, not
trying to control, giving of himself, playing with conviction. That’s
what makes interesting performers."
Kalish is one of three pianists with whom Upshaw most frequently performs.
The others are Margo Garrett, an Upshaw collaborator since 1984, and
Richard Goode, who is renowned for his insightful interpretations
as a solo pianist. Why does she use different partners? "You could
ask why not," she responds. "I use more than one partner because
I find it interesting, and learn a lot by working with different musicians.
Sometimes I do one kind of music with one collaborator, and other
kind, with someone else. It’s a way of remaining fresh. If I’ve settled
into habits, I get re-oriented when I work with someone different.
I don’t want to limit myself."
After Upshaw’s recital tour with Kalish ends, Upshaw switches gears
from the intimate recital stage, where she exploits being herself,
but doing it with supreme artistry, to the larger-than-life world
of opera, where she projects being a dramatic personage. Her rehearsals
for John Harbison’s "The Great Gatsby," which premieres at
the Met Monday, December 20, begin in mid-November. Eight performances
are scheduled, the last one on Saturday, January 15.
Upshaw relishes not only the close musical bond of sharing
the stage with a single esteemed collaborator, but also the team-effort
of working within an ensemble of seven singers in a full-scale operatic
production. For her music is music, whether she is communicating with
a McCarter-sized audience of about 1,000, or the 3,000 listeners that
fill New York’s Metropolitan Opera House.
Born in Nashville in 1960, Upshaw grew up in a suburb of Chicago.
With her father, a minister turned psychotherapist, on guitar; her
mother, a teacher, at the piano; and her sister, who now lives in
Portland, Dawn was part of the family performing group that appeared
in local public schools and leaned towards songs promoting social
justice. As a teenager Dawn’s idols were Barbra Streisand and Linda
Ronstadt, and she considered opera "boring."
As an undergraduate at Illinois Wesleyan University, her mentor was
David Nott, who exposed her to a great deal of new music. In 1984,
shortly after earning a master’s degree from the Manhattan School
of Music, where she studied with Ellen Faull, Upshaw won two competitions
that propelled her career. The Young Concert Artists award afforded
an opportunity to perform extensively throughout the United States.
Within days of hearing about the coveted prize, Upshaw learned that
she had also won the Metropolitan Opera’s Young Artists Development
auditions, which entitled her to a two-year apprenticeship with the
company. She made her peace with opera, and decided to take advantage
of the two prestigious awards simultaneously, although the scheduling
problems were monumental.
As an opera singer Upshaw has become renowned both for her portrayals
of Mozart roles, as well as for her work in 20th-century opera. She
is known for her Anne Trulove in "The Rake’s Progress," her
Blanche in "Dialogues of the Carmelites," and Melisande in
"Pelleas and Melisande." Reviewing the newly-released Deutsche
Grammophon recording of Olivier Messiaen’s sole opera "St. Francois
d’Assise," which includes Upshaw as the angel, Paul Griffiths,
writing in the New York Times, praised her singing for its "purity."
Along the way, Upshaw ended up marrying Michael Nott, a musicologist,
and son of her mentor at Illinois Wesleyan. The couple has two children,
Sadie, 9, and Gabriel, 5. "Michael has taught music history at
the college level," his wife says. "He stays home with the
kids. We wanted one of us to be at home." Upshaw arranges her
performing schedule to provide for much time with the family. "Something
happens to me when I’m not with my children," she told Wayne Koestenbaum
in an interview for the New York Times. "I start asking myself
why I’m in this business."
Despite the primacy of her family, Upshaw’s musical activities are
prodigiously varied. Since 1993 she has given more than 25 world premieres.
Her seven-page discography, reflecting her work on the concert stage,
includes classical song recitals, performances with orchestra, oratorio,
musical theater, and 11 operas. Her recording of Henryk Gorecki’s
Symphony No. 3 has sold more than a million copies. Her Nonesuch CD,
"I Wish It So," reveals her artistry with songs from musical
theater and reveals the same qualities that captivate audiences when
she performs live. There is an immediacy to her singing that speaks
of direct involvement with one listener at a time, even when the audience
is large. Her voice sounds warm and enveloping. There is at the same
time quiet excitement, verve, and yearning.
Composer John Harbison didn’t need to consult Upshaw when he created
the role of Daisy Buchanan for her in his new opera "The Great
Gatsby." "John Harbison has written several pieces with me
in mind," Upshaw says. "He knows my voice well." The hand-in-glove
fit of their collaboration can be experienced on the Nonesuch CD "Knoxville:
Summer of 1915" where Upshaw sings Harbison’s "Mirabai Songs."
Harbison sent Upshaw the Gatsby music early on, and she found it well-suited
for her voice.
"The Great Gatsby is one of the best books I ever read," Upshaw
says of the F. Scott Fitzgerald jazz-age novel. Composer Harbison,
who grew up in Princeton, the son of a professor, was similarly taken
with the book, and saw its musical possibilities at first encounter.
"That this story invited music was my conviction from my first
reading," he says. He began toying with the project in 1981. Now
that the project is completed, he says, "The characters in Gatsby
live in a world of the sounds of their time — radio music, dance
bands, car horns, fog horns on Long Island Sound, the beat of the
popular music of the mid-’20s." The story is steeped in passion
and intensity. Gatsby, who has become rich, is obsessed with recapturing
his lost love, Daisy, who married Tom Buchanan while Gatsby was away
at war. After Gatsby’s car kills Tom’s mistress, Tom kills Gatsby,
and Daisy returns to her husband.
Upshaw is skeptical of the necessity for passion and intensity as
ingredients for an operatic plot. "There’s no formula for opera,"
she says. "It depends on what the composer and librettist do.
Passion is not an essential ingredient for opera."
Asked about the appeal of the role of Daisy, Upshaw hedges at first.
"She’s very complicated," she offers. "It’s important
to me to be part of the premiere for this particular work. Daisy is
very unlike me." Then she says, "When I’m working on a role
I try to find something in common with the character." Asked what
she finds in common with Daisy, Upshaw responds initially with a long,
"In this case," she finally says, "I’m not sure what,
besides being a woman, and appreciating how a woman can be treated
by the opposite sex. I think I understand what’s attractive to her.
She’s more flirtatious than I am. She has a lot of fun with the other
characters in the book. I can understand that kind of thing."
Upshaw leavens her performing schedule, not only with time spent with
her family, but with several approaches to healthy living that work
for her. She aims to drink 12 glasses of water a day, and preferably
she sleeps 10 hours a night. If she gets less than nine hours sleep,
she senses the deprivation in her singing. She allows herself down
time during the summer.
After Gatsby the next large landmark on her horizon
is a series of three concerts in Lincoln Center’s Great Performers
series in the spring. With each concert focusing on a different arena
of Upshaw’s interests, the series is designed to display her versatility.
"It’s an opportunity to present three concerts, at least two of
them with repertoire different from what I normally do on tour."
The opening event, a song recital in which Upshaw’s collaborator at
the piano is Jerome Ducros, is entitled "Homage a Jane Bathori,"
and is dedicated to the French mezzo-soprano who inspired Debussy,
Ravel, and other 20th-century French composers. "The song recital
is not so far off my beaten track," Upshaw says. "I’ve done
the recital in many cities, but not on tour in New York."
The second component, called "Tonight is the Night," is a
collaboration with the innovative Kronos Quartet (U.S. 1, July 21,
1999), which draws on music of eight different musical traditions.
"We’re taking the Kronos show on tour," Upshaw says, "and
New York is part of the tour." The third, "Round About,"
named after the Vernon Duke song, is devoted to music from the American
musical theater; it is directed by Michael Mayer, director of "Side
Man." "It’s really a one-woman show, and will have a connection
from one song to another," Upshaw says.
When she performs, Upshaw gets a visceral reaction, she told Koestenbaum.
"When I stop, I’m tingly. Especially I feel it in my face, but
I sort of feel it all over my body. There’s something so calming about
using my energies that way and feeling like I’m using every part of
my body." It sounds very kinesthetic. Following a similar perception,
Upshaw refers to "rubbing" when she talks about the interplay
of good intonation among performing musicians.
When Upshaw talked to U.S. 1 last, she also used a kinesthetic idea,
"touching," to describe what she hopes to accomplish in performance.
There is every reason to think that she continues to think in the
"My aim," she said, "is to give part of myself in every
performance. I like to take risks. I want to be accessible. I want
to touch the audience and make them think of something in their lives
differently." Earthiness is what Upshaw delivers, not something
— Elaine Strauss
609-258-2787. $33 & $36. Monday, November 1, 8 p.m.
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