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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,

honest silence.

"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

same terms.

"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

abstract.

— Elaine Strauss

Dawn Upshaw, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place,

609-258-2787. $33 & $36. Monday, November 1, 8 p.m.


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