The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Feb 27, 2012

Dawn Upshaw, an American treasure

Posted by Valerie Nahmad

BSebastian SprengVisual Artist and Classical Music Writer

Dawn Upshaw defies all definitions, particularly that of “lyric soprano” simply because her voice is many voices. She was named a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and in 2007 she won the MacArthur Fellowship, the first classical vocal artist to be awarded the five-year “genius” prize bestowed on “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” The “genius grant” stamped an ultimate seal of approval already endorsed by four Grammy Awards and several honorary degrees and awards. Even though, to label Upshaw a genius is to pigeonhole this force of nature disguised as a tender songbird. She is  a songbird who never stops exploring, deepening, searching, finding, always true to her nature and essential mission: to sing and soar.

Upshaw is the muse that inspires Osvaldo Golijov, who composed several works for the singer, including Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra, the opera Ainadamar, the cycles Ayre and She Was Here. He once said: “I don’t compose for her, in fact…sometimes I think she composes for me." On March 2 and 3 Upshaw will sing the Miami premiere Golijov's Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra with the Cleveland Orchestra under conductor Nicola Luisotti.

Golijov is not alone in composing for Upshaw. She personifies an essentially American artist: flexible, versatile and able to conciliate opposite expressive and stylistic currents. Her voice is like a white canvas ideally suited to the creations of contemporary and past composers. In Upshaw’s apparent fragility resides her strength. The voice has merged with the artist; it has urgency, intention and expression. The fire beneath the calm of this benevolent volcano inspires the respect and humbleness that characterize her approach.

Bach, Handel and Mozart are the foundations of this soprano who, like a classically-trained ballerina, leaps intrepidly into the universe of a Martha Graham or a Pina Bausch. She breathes life into characters composed for her: Daisy Buchanan in John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby, John AdamsEl Niño, Clémence in Kaija Saariaho‘s L’amour de loin and Margarita Xirgú in Federico Garcia Lorca's Ainadamar. Here, too, that sweet and innocent voice – one that can confidently navigate Kurt WeillVernon Duke, Lukas Foss, Schubert, Barber, Mahler, Rodgers & Hart, Bártok, Canteloube, Berio, Gershwin, Debussy, Ravel, William Bolcom and even Sibelius - becomes a tragic Greek figure,.

Internationally acclaimed since 1991, when her recording of Górecki‘s Third Symphony broke sales records and catapulted her to rock-star status, Upshaw enjoyed a glorious decade at the Metropolitan Opera (more than 300 performances) and opera houses in Paris, Salzburg and Glyndebourne, where she showcased her Pamina, Susanna, Despina, Melisande, Anne Trulove and Zerlina, alternating full-scale operas with stimulating Lieder recitals and concerts.

At the dawn of the millennium, Upshaw switched centuries and embraced contemporary music more fully than ever. She valiantly battled a cancer that had the musical community in suspense and, upon returning to the stage, she was inevitably identified with a new dawn. This “Genius” is an American treasure at the service of music. To interview her is to face simplicity and disarming laughter, the same contagious laughter with which she topped off her priceless version of Leonard Bernstein‘s Glitter and be Gay.

SS: Will this be the first time you sing in Miami? DU: It’s curious, but I can’t tell you exactly. It might be! I’m not absolutely positive about that, but it feels like the first time. As a matter of fact, when I was six-months-old until the time I was three, I lived in Miami Beach. My father was an associate minister at the Miami Beach Community Church.

SS: And that was the first time you sang in Miami! DU:It seems that way! This time, I’ll sing Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra by Osvaldo Golijov. We became good friends around 2001 when he wrote Lua Descolorida for me, for voice and cello, then excerpted it in his Passion and afterwards arranged this current version for orchestra. Then he added Night of the Flying Horses, a Yiddish lullaby, and How Slow the Wind, based on two poems by Emily Dickinson. They are very different from each other and each had a previous original form, but they work really well together and I am really so happy to sing them.

SS: What are the first words that come to your mind if I name a composer close to you? Mozart? DU:Purity. The true vulnerability of life. You can’t hide with Mozart; everything is exposed. All truth, all pain is exposed.

SS: Franz Schubert DU: Richness, complexity of understanding.

SS: Oliver Messiaen DU: Ecstatic love.

SS: Luciano Berio DU:Like Schubert, complexity but also delicacy.

SS: Kaija Saariaho DU: Otherworldly, definitely, music from another world…

SS: György Kurtag DU: Tremendous intricacy and delicacy. With detail going straight to the truth in a very brief time.

SS: John Adams DU: A huge scope, in a kind of large, great potential for a vision.

SS: Osvaldo Golijov DU: Of the earth.

SS: Was there a before and an after Górecki’s Third Symphony? DU: Not so much as people tend to believe. Yes, the recording reached such a vast audience, much more than the one I could reach in concerts in my whole lifetime. It was a very powerful experience to meet him and work with other colleagues. I feel I had probably a dozen musical experiences over the years that had an impact as profound as the Górecki. Some are related to specific pieces, for instance, Messiaen’s Saint Francois d’Assise, Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress and Kurtag’s Kafka Fragment. And, basically, it had to do with working with great colleagues, such as Gilbert Kalish, Richard Goode, Geoff Nuttall and  Peter Sellars.

SS: Handel’s Theodora in Glyndebourne with Hunt-Lieberson and Sellars, was a milestone. Don’t you miss opera? DU: An unforgettable experience to add to the list. Working with Lorraine and Peter was magic. Regarding opera, I have to tell you why I don’t really miss it. I did a mixture of opera and concerts for a long time. In my mind, it’s very hard to get it all right. The more incredible experiences I had in opera, with Peter Sellars, for instance, the more I realized how hard it is when you don’t have that type of experience. To do opera well is so demanding in every sense of the word, especially when you have a family and children and you have to be away for long periods of time. Ultimately, at 51, my work has evolved in a sort of natural, organic way that makes me not miss opera at all.

SS: What are your latest projects? DU: Last year I was Artistic Director of the Ojai Festival, and it was a highlight of my musical life. There I premiered Maria Schneider’s Winter Morning Walks and a commissioned work by Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy, That the Night Come, a song cycle on texts by W.B.Yeats. This year, from the same composer and performed by the St. Paul Orchestra, we have If He Died, What Then, a narrative piece on the famine in Ireland, a true story by an American woman who happened to be there doing missionary, voluntary work.  It’s about her experience. Dennehy is such an individual musical voice. He says something new, and I am very excited to be working with him. I feel very much alive working on new music, and that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy singing music that has been around for centuries. It’s just that I feel inspired and revitalized. I am also doing some teaching at Bard College Conservatory in upstate New York.

SS: Why are audiences afraid of new music? DU: Over the last century we traveled through so many different styles of music that I feel, perhaps, some of that music alienated, in a certain way, some sectors of the audience. I certainly don’t respond the same way to all new music. I would say there is a lot of new music that I can’t connect to. In a way, and because we are working with new musical languages, you are not necessarily conditioned to understanding at first hearing. It takes real generosity to give something that speaks to you. I try to dive into new pieces by listening in segments of five to ten minutes in order to get familiar with the musical language… and sometimes I don’t get that connection either. Remember the riots after Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913? Sometimes it takes time. The music needs to live in the air for a certain period of time. The connection is not immediate.

SS: Is there music that changed your life? DU: Actually, yes. I was in college and it was George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children with Jan de Gaetani. I was going through the section of contemporary music recordings in the bookstore and I was drawn to the cover. It has this big butterfly. It was the butterfly that caught my attention. That music changed everything for me! I couldn’t believe what George Crumb composed. I think now, at this particular time in my life, he’s a composer I would like to sing more often. I just did his Winds of Destiny cycle in Ojai. The beauty and intimacy that he creates, his sound world is so unique, profound, that he goes to the core in a very gentle and honest way, and I really admire that. It’s all about that.

SS: How has your appreciation of music and life changed after so many experiences over the past few years? DU: I now have an even greater appreciation for the healing aspect of music. I think of all the wonderful things and all the not so wonderful things, and I feel blessed. I feel I have a more intense connection with my music making because I know how much it means to me. And yes, I feel happy and blessed.

Dawn Upshaw: March 2-3, 8pm; Knight Concert Hall at Adrienne Arsht Center; 305-949-6722 or

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