Interview: Soprano Dawn Upshaw

Soprano Dawn Upshaw has a voice as smooth and rich as dark chocolate, and clear and clean as spring water from a brook.

Soprano Dawn Upshaw

The singer has been performing opera and concert repertoire for over 25 years, from the works of Bach and Handel, to today’s music. She has nearly 60 CDs to her name, four of which have one Grammys, including Osvaldo Golijov’s, Ainadamar (2006). Her most recent release on Deutsche Grammophon is “Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra,” the third in a series of acclaimed recordings of Golijov’s music.

The iconic musician will sing world premieres of five new works written especially for her this season, including a work by Composer Joan Tower at the Morgan Library and Museum this month, part of a program by the Bard College Conservatory of Music Graduate Vocal Arts Program.

“I thought it would be nice to have one piece I would premiere as the artistic director and have Joan Tower, who is prominent on our faculty, write something for me,” said Dawn during a phone interview last month. “I’m enjoying the process with her. She has not written much vocal music, so this is kind of jumping into a new realm, in a sense, for her.”

As well as serving as artistic partner with The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, she is the 2011 Ojai Festival music director.

“It’s been kind of a gas to put together. I was able to invite most of the colleagues I adore working with.” Dawn names Director Peter Sellars and Musician Maria Schneider among them. “I’ve invited people I love and people I love to make music with, people who are especially interesting to me.” The singer says the Ojai Festival offers a different flavor every year. “I’ve been to Ojai several times and adore the place and I love singing there. It’s pure fun.”

Dawn was in Saint Paul preparing for a concert of Gabriela Lena Frank’s world premiere, “La centinela y la paloma” (“The Keeper and the Dove”), Manuel de Falla, Enrico Chapela and Aaron Copland when we spoke. We chatted about her upcoming performance with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, why she’s an “in the moment” person, and why she chose an operatic career. Read the interview below, followed by her upcoming concert engagements.

JML—You sang the premiere of Schubert/Golijov’s “She Was Here” in 2008 with The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Tell us about the piece and what it means for you to sing it.
I love Schubert songs. Schubert wrote over 600 songs, which is pretty unusual. It happens that I’ve done a lot of projects with [Osvaldo] Golijov. I learned early on he was a lover of Shubert—not just his songs, but his chamber music, too. I had an opportunity to commission something from Golijov through The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and thought it might be nice to ask him to arrange Schubert songs. He was eager to do that. In preparation, I made a list of possible songs for Osvaldo to consider. From that list, I had favorites and he had favorites, and he chose four. The texts of these four songs are all quite reflective and, for the most part, have a sense of repose.

JML—Golijov composed “She Was Here” for you, as well as other works and arrangements. What does that mean for you as an artist?
It’s an honor, really, to work with a composer and to have the opportunity to realize a piece of music for the first time. To have something written specifically for me is very exciting and presents interesting challenges as well. I’m working more and more with composers. I enjoy singing older music, too, but I find working on brand new pieces and collaborating with various composers is vital work in my life. It feels important to me to be making the music of my own time.

JML—What is it you enjoy about Sibelius’ “Luonnotar” (“Daughter of Nature”)?
It’s a wild piece! Musically it’s very descriptive of this wild story of the creation of nature. And so it’s really like a tone poem for soprano and orchestra. It’s as if the music is telling a story. I’ve only done it once before and I’m looking forward to getting back to it. I believe Robert Spano has done the piece several times. I can’t wait to do it with him.

JML—You have quite a bit of history performing with the Atlanta Symphony, including a Grammy-Award winning album of Golijov’s Ainadamar. What kind of connection do you share with Conductor Robert Spano and the Orchestra?
I’ve known Bob for quite awhile—long before he came to Atlanta. My history with the orchestra goes back to the beginnings of my professional work. Robert Shaw (ASO Music Director 1967-1988) was one of the first conductors to hire me. I’m so appreciative he took a chance on me early on. I came to sing under Mr. Shaw maybe four times in Atlanta and worked with him in other cities as well. He was hugely influential early on for me and I learned so much from him. Performances with him brought me incredible joy. It’s wonderful to continue my relationship with the symphony and Robert, now. I know when I go to Atlanta, I’m going to be working with people who bring the best of themselves to music. It’s very meaningful to me.

JML—You’ve spent your career in amazing operatic roles; you’ve sung in Paris and at The Met. What are you doing now you’d like to continue doing? And what would you like to tackle if given the opportunity?
I’m very much an “in the moment” person. I feel that things are constantly evolving. I have now been singing professionally for around 25 years, and I feel that the best work that I’ve done probably comes when music-making happens organically. Working with composers leads me to different styles and different forms of expressions, and often sends me in new directions. It helps me to remain “awake” to it all.

JML—We’ve discussed how you’re in the amazing position of premiering new works (El Nino, Ainadamar, She Was Here). Do you have a sort of apprehension with these requests? What goes through your mind when you’re asked to sing pieces that haven’t been sung by anyone else?
I see it as a huge and vital part of my work and it has been for a long time now. It’s become a familiar process for me. My goal is to feel I can bring something to the text or poem chosen, to connect in some way, to understand what the composer is trying to say as a way of expressing that kind of text. The process is the same, even if the ingredients vary.

JML—What drew you to opera?
It wasn’t until I was out of graduate school. Opera came late. My first love was folk music and music theater. I grew up in a house in the 1960s with parents who listened to music like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, among many others. In high school, I became interested in music theater and I thought that’s what I wanted to do when I went to college. I took my degree program in voice, and began learning about classical music through coursework.

JML—Some people might not realize that a singer’s voice changes over time, becomes more mature. What have you noticed about your voice or the direction of your vocal career that you enjoy most?
I enjoy more the changes in range—I feel I can sing lower more easily with a little more sound and volume, and the color has changed a little bit, too. It’s not quite as light as it was when I was younger. I enjoy what I feel is now a richer quality to the sound.

Upcoming Performances with Dawn Upshaw:

March 17, 2011
Morgan Library, New York
with Bard Conservatory young singers
“First Songs” – world premiere by Joan Tower

March 24 & 26, 2011
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Schubert, arr. Golijov “She Was Here”
Sibelius “Luonnotar”

April 7-9, 2011
National Symphony Orchestra /Christoph Eschenbach
Schubert, arr. Golijov “She Was Here” & Mahler Symphony No. 4

April 11-17, 2011
Carnegie Hall/Weill Institute “Composer-Singer Workshop”
[Fourth such workshop Dawn has done at Carnegie working with young singers and composers]
with Donnacha Dennehy [simultaneous with Nonesuch CD release]

May 13, 2011
Carnegie Hall
The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
Maria Schneider “Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories”
Bartok “Five Hungarian Folk Songs”, arr. Richard Tognetti

June 4, 2011
Ojai Festival/Libbey Bowl opening
Golijov “Ayre” with Eighth Blackbird

June 9-12, 2011
Ojai Festival/Music Director
Performances with Bard grads; Maria Schneider world premiere with Australian Chamber Orchestra; George Crumb staged by Peter Sellars

June 14-16, 2011
Ojai North/UC Berkeley–Schneider and Crumb

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2 Responses to Interview: Soprano Dawn Upshaw

  1. LaSharron says:

    Amazing that she didn’t get into opera until after graduate school. I would like to hear her sing.

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