The interview: Dawn Upshaw | Music | The Observer

7/24/13 8:41 AM

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She was always gifted, but then a battle with cancer saw the blossoming of a remarkable new creative force. Peter Conrad meets the US soprano hailed as a musical genius
Peter Conrad The Observer, Saturday 15 March 2008

An American journalist, meaning to be complimentary, once described Dawn Upshaw as 'the thinking man's soubrette'. Well, I'm a thinking man, but I can testify, after meeting her last week in New York, that she is no soubrette. Soubrettes are opera's airheads: high, light sopranos cast as simpering peasants or saucy maids. Upshaw, on the contrary, is a free-thinking brainbox; recently, she won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, one of the so-called 'genius grants' previously awarded to Susan Sontag and Thomas Pynchon. The foundation saluted her as 'a new model of a performer, directly involved in the creation of contemporary music'. Who better to open the Barbican's Present Voices season in Osvaldo Golijov's opera about the murder of the poet Lorca, Ainadamar? The woman who met me at the station in a commuter town north of Manhattan, sensibly swathed in a duffel coat, might have been a suburban mother who had completed the school run and the grocery shopping. Upshaw, who married the son of her voice teacher and has two children, doesn't look like an opera singer or think of herself as one. 'Only people who don't know me call me that. Like my accountant, he always writes it on my tax return! Apparently Leonard Bernstein put "musician" down as his occupation. That sounds more like it.'

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At the Metropolitan Page 2 of 7 . "Hey. let me inspire you. An enforced hiatus in 2006. "Come. admittedly stained with plush red sauce. with a parody of a dizzy diva's wondrous. I feel that she's composing me!' Her grateful colleagues often call her a muse. In concerts. she had more freedom. paying tribute to his ideal interpreter. Zerlina the village flirt in Don Giovanni . the aphrodisiac item turned out to be a tube of fish and avocado. La Passion de Simone. however.but remained. 'except cheap clothes!' That deficiency would not bother a soprano like Anna Netrebko. newly healthy Upshaw has reinvented herself as a performer who is also a co-creator. alternating between German lieder and Broadway show songs. Though I expected to see a soprano-sustaining pile of bleeding meat. she didn't behave conventionally: at the first recital of hers I attended. The MacArthur citation is accurate. a young Englishman whose chamber opera will be performed this month by the students Upshaw coaches. then let's do http://www. At though this pedestalled status makes her giggle. a genius is a generator and Upshaw brings music to birth. which is what makes her vocal flights above it . 'it's usually fresher than this. 'We've got everything here. has said: 'I don't compose for her. I remember being startled and delighted when she talked to the audience as well as singing at us. Golijov. She works with composers such as Golijov and Kaija Saariaho. sometimes invisible roles: an offstage shepherd in Wagner. she did something uncharacteristically operatic: she called for a 'passion roll'.The interview: Dawn Upshaw | Music | The Observer 7/24/13 8:41 AM As we walked to a Japanese restaurant for lunch. 'No. underlined the importance of doing only what mattered to her. whose oratorio about Resistance martyr Simone Weil."' she said. who gaily flaunts her Escada gowns and Chopard jewels. She graduated to Mozart heroines Susanna the below-stairs minx in The Marriage of Figaro. she first sang small. when she underwent surgery and chemotherapy after a diagnosis of breast cancer. a vocalising echo in Strauss. The reborn. Sometimes. 'Hmm. in the casting department's estimation. Even so. it's not. and extends commissions to a new generation of musicians like David Bruce.' she said. But Upshaw is anchored to the earth. no more than a I really connect with your music and if you like the way I sing it. 'It's more like.' Upshaw the iconoclast began by doing the things that were expected of her.for instance when she sings the annunciating angel in Messiaen's St François d'Assise . she took stock of the shops.' she said as she tucked in. she sang at the Barbican last summer.

doing the folky things Joan Baez and Pete Seeger sang. Politics has its disappointments. that's maybe why I've never been at home with organised religion. to I don't know 'At the end. a fire-breathing crusader for public morality. lunar all the more reason to seek refuge in music.. music can be a healing force. the lapse into doubt. but I asked her to explain it. I just floated off into Kaija's sound world. It was music that addressed the conscience. a series she devised in 1996 was entitled 'Voices of the Spirit' and set out to dramatise the instant of spiritual awakening. But of course I was also rolling round on the floor in a pool of cold water! People often say that if you're troubled or in pain. 'I guess I made a http://www.' She illustrated her esteem for Hunt Lieberson by putting down her chopsticks.The interview: Dawn Upshaw | Music | The Observer 7/24/13 8:41 AM business!"' What I have always been moved by in Upshaw's singing is its soulful. 'My father was a minister in the United Church of Christ when I was growing up. that wanted to change things .review Page 3 of 7 . had been forced to resign after the FBI exposed him as a frequent customer of an expensive call-girl service. She rolled her eyes incredulously.' Among the discs she used as therapy was a performance of Bach cantatas about mortality by her beloved colleague Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. 'I'm so excited about him! But have you heard about Eliot Spitzer?' That very day. the governor of New York. but the way Lorraine sings made it soothing. I listened over and over to Bach to soothe my anxiety.' This is the opera Saariaho wrote for Upshaw. who plays the muse of an adoring troubadour. I feel I've lost myself and I'm connected to . But I've always felt that music must have some kind of message or mission. It was a blessing. I know it's true because when I was ill. Some of her recital programmes have a non-denominationally religious agenda. and the final arrival at trusting faith. That's how I felt in L'Amour de loin. I went to church a lot.' she frowned. who was killed in 2006 by the same cancer that Upshaw has fought 'That is the most touching performance of anything ever! It's about fear and anguish. My parents were very involved in the civil rights movement in the Sixties. 'Let's see. My dad played guitar and we had amateur gigs at church socials. The mute gesture said everything. They did their bit by forming the Upshaw Family Singers. as if I became part of something almost galactic. making a bowl of her hands and lifting them into the air. 'When a performance goes well.and it did!' Upshaw remains politically aware and is an enthusiastic supporter of Barack Obama.

'Don't we all have life experiences we can draw on? Come now!' A convulsive belly laugh rocked her body as she savoured secret memories. 'Yes. 'Oh my!' she gulped. can produce an ecstasy that is searingly erotic. When I questioned her about Saariaho . very different from the ebulliently Latin Golijov . Manhattan School of Recovering her composure. at the Barbican on Wednesday.she hesitated.' she said. the composer's other favourite soprano. Made her debut in Verdi's Rigoletto. that I want to protect. the ardour is pure. Education BA music. who can rely on the inarticulate eloquence of music. 'it's lovely to let rip.' she grinned. and I don't mean anything physical. http://www. too. Next devilish twinkle in Upshaw's voice on this track came from. Career highlights 1984 Joined New York's Metropolitan Opera.a life: 'It's her nature to singI Born 17 July 1960. ecstasy is a drug. can descend from the stratosphere and root around in raunchier depths. is right to be verbally wary.a Finn. Mirage. Nashville. I asked where the delicious. one sacred and the other fierily profane. Karita Mattila. Saariaho has a pair of muses. I may try the passion roll. 'I'd say there was something ecstatic about her .' In the roles Saariaho has written for Upshaw. ululate and bark like a manic mongrel dog. she apologised for disconcerting me. 'You know what happens to the poet in L'Amour de loin: he sees her and he drops dead.' One of my favourite recorded performances of hers is a Rodgers and Hart song about a wicked hoyden who gets away with murder because all her sexual crimes are committed 'with a twinkle in her eye'.but nowadays. I see Kaija as an ecstatic being and you can hear that in her music. 'It's better not to have these ethereal ideas about muses. however. Tennessee. MA. So maybe he was right to keep his distance!' The shock didn't make me regret meeting Upshaw. who sings Saariaho's new work. But Upshaw.The interview: Dawn Upshaw | Music | The Observer 7/24/13 8:41 AM cup with my hands to show this is something I Page 4 of 7 . Upshaw . Golijov's music requires a gutsier sound and in his cycle Ayre she has to keen. Then I raise it on high because that's where Lorraine belongs.' Words are at a loss in dealing with such subjects and Upshaw. Illinois Wesleyan

You Won't Page 5 of 7 http://www. Personal life Married to Michael Nott. Two children.The interview: Dawn Upshaw | Music | The Observer 7/24/13 8:41 AM 1985 Won the Naumburg Competition. 1989 and 1991 Grammy winner for best vocal soloist. Sign up for the daily email More from the Guardian What's this? Ten things I learned after having lunch with Kate Moss 18 Jul 2013 State of Origin streaker: 'Am Latitude festival 2013 – I in trouble now?' review 18 Jul 2013 21 Jul 2013 Morrissey: has his light finally gone out? 22 Jul 2013 More from around the web What's this? Where Are They Now? 15 Rappers Who Fell Off the Akon's Wikipedia Page Is Unbelievable Celebrities With EnvyWorthy Eyebrows 8 Celebs Who Were Goths and Punks.' Robert Shaw. conductor. which sold more than a million copies. London EC2 Get the Guardian's daily US email Our editors' picks for the day's top news and commentary delivered to your inbox each morning. That's why she's here on earth. just like it's a bird's nature. They said: 'It's her nature to sing. 1993 Received worldwide acclaim for her recording of Henryk Gorecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs with David All at the .guardian. Saariaho's Adriana Mater follows on 24 ! Dawn Upshaw sings Golijov's Ainadamar on 13 April. Karita Mattila sings Saariaho's Mirage on 19 March. How To Sing .review Page 6 of 7 . All rights reserved. Kate Middleton Photos Stunning Pictures of Princess Kate Middleton and the Royal Family.Really Sing Breakthrough Method Releases Your Unique Voice! Watch Free Video Here TheSingingZone. rossieronline. interview: Dawn Upshaw | Music | The Observer 7/24/13 8:41 AM Map (Styleblazer) (Brisk Bodega) (Modamob) Believe It (Snakkle) Ads by Google Teach English Worldwide Become an English Teacher Overseas Earn Your TESOL Online at USC. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies.StyleBistro.

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