Features

Dawn Upshaw

LOUISE T. GUINTHER salutes the distinguished achievement of the OPERA NEWS Awards winner.

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Photographed by Ken Howard as Margarita Xirgu in the Santa Fe Opera production of Ainadamar, 2005
© Ken Howard 2013
ON Awards Award THMB 413

There have been many memorable Susannas, Ilias and Paminas in the history of opera, but for those of us who heard the young Dawn Upshaw in these roles, it's impossible to think of them without conjuring up her inimitable sound, with its blend of bright soubrette sparkle and rich human depth; its intense sweetness tinged with surprising pungency; its pristine clarity rendered as multifaceted as cut crystal by the thoughtful musical intelligence that guides it.

For Upshaw, of course, Mozart and the Met were only the beginning of the panoply of roles and venues that have made up her adventurous, wide-ranging career. Over its astonishing trajectory, Bach and Bernstein, Saariaho and Sondheim, Górecki and Golijov, Mahler and Messiaen have been illuminated by the spark of her genius. (Lest that word seem like hyperbole, let it be noted that Upshaw was the first vocal artist to be awarded the "genius" grant by the MacArthur Foundation.) A four-time Grammy-winner and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, she is firmly ensconced in the world's elite artistic pantheon, yet there is something down to earth about her — perhaps a result of having grown up with folk music in a family that was active in the civil-rights movement — that makes her distinctly a diva of the people and for the people. That instinct for connection with a diverse audience has allowed her to open the minds of her public to things new and unexpected, as witness her 1991 recording of Górecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, which sold well over one million copies.

Upshaw is at once as American and as cosmopolitan as an artist can be. Born in Nashville and trained at Manhattan School of Music, she began her career in the Met's young-artist program and has sung some 300 performances with the company. She has left her indelible mark on the native masterpieces of Barber and Bernstein, created the role of Daisy in John Harbison's setting of that quintessentially American story The Great Gatsby and enjoyed fruitful collaborations with compatriots such as Peter Sellars, John Adams, James Levine, Richard Goode and the Kronos Quartet. Yet equally impressive are her accomplishments abroad, where she has served as muse to many of the world's most illustrious living composers, creating leading roles in Golijov's Ainadamar and Saariaho's Amour de Loin and La Passion de Simone

Upshaw's is a voice of many modes. Often, in her timbre, there is an edge-of-the seat tension that pulls the audience along inexorably, breathlessly and yet, miraculously, without ever making us tense ourselves. Elsewhere, she can produce a tone and a line so effortless, so restful, so serene that it conjures an effect of pure peace in sonic form. But there is more than voice to Upshaw's art. It is the way she places her ravishing sound at the service of her extraordinary communicative powers that captures our hearts and minds. A catch phrase with great currency among performers is the goal of "taking ownership of the music." With Upshaw, the alchemy goes a step further: the music seems to take possession of her, so that she is no longer merely playing a character or shaping a melodic line but giving breath to the living spirit of the piece. She has a gift for rendering the thorniest of modern idioms instantly accessible, as if the earnestness of her yearning to reach another soul through music were enough to break down all resistance.

A sampling of her work on video confirms the expressive truth that defines her artistry. In L'Amour de Loin, she is incandescent in her early scenes, her voice gleaming in perfect communion with the twinkling, flashing lights that burst from her spiral tower; later on, with her body half-submerged in a pool of water that covers the stage, her plaintive singing becomes the cry of a soul drowning in grief. As Handel's Theodora, she proves unquestioningly committed to Sellars's strangely moving gestural language. In Theodora's Act II scena, she suffers writhing agonies of doubt and terror that are somehow tinged with nobility and courage in a fearless physical performance that would bring an audience to tears even if she didn't sing a note; combined with Handel's heartbreaking vocal line, as rendered in Upshaw's intensely restrained reading, the effect is devastating beyond description. In both performances, she embodies the same chiaroscuro paradox, pouring forth a sound that evinces radiant hope, faith and a kind of knowing innocence piercing the dark clouds of torment and despair.

Away from the opera stage, Upshaw is known for thoughtful, innovative programming as a concert artist and recitalist. Even in that less overtly dramatic context, she is no less adept at inhabiting each piece of music and drawing the listener with her into its separate world. In her recording of Barber's Knoxville, Summer of 1915, she becomes not only the narrator but her surroundings, her voice soaring and swooping as lightly as a swallow borne on a breeze, or dodging a streetcar with the mass dexterity of a crowd of pedestrians and buggies. In the midst of a full-time career, she also has an eye on posterity: a devoted and inspiring teacher, she serves on the faculty of the Tanglewood Music Center and leads the Graduate Vocal Arts Program at the Bard Conservatory of Music, a program she helped to devise. "I'm supposed to be teaching them," she told Chronogram magazine, "but so much of the time they inspire me."

In the studio or on the stage, Upshaw's art is the art of connection on all levels — not only the intimate bond between performer and audience but the far broader and deeper link of being fellow travelers in the universe. It is that overriding sense of shared humanity that makes us cherish Upshaw not just as an artist but as a friend. spacer 

LOUISE T. GUINTHER

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Current Issue: December 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 6