The Teaching Artist
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The Teaching Artist

Educator Dawn Upshaw brings a unique perspective on performing and a passion for sharing her experiences to her mission of shaping aspiring singers.
By F. Paul Driscoll
Photographs by Dario Acosta

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Dawn Upshaw at Bard College’s Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, designed by Frank Gehry
Photographed in Annandale-on-Hudson by Dario Acosta
“Young singers have to search and find out who they are.”
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Upshaw in a teaching session with baritone Luke MacMillan
© Dario Acosta
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Upshaw at Bard
© Dario Acosta

IT'S A FRIDAY MORNING in late May, and Dawn Upshaw has arrived in my office at OPERA NEWS impressively prepared for our interview. As I turn on the recorder, Upshaw reaches into her bag and pulls out a pad of lined paper with some writing on the top page. “Notes for our conversation,” she says, smiling, as she settles into her chair. “There are some things I want to make sure we cover today, and I don’t want to forget anything.” Upshaw is here to talk about her work as a teacher at the Tanglewood Music Center, where she is head of the vocal arts program, and at Bard College Conservatory of Music, where she is artistic director of the graduate vocal arts program. Now in her late fifties, Upshaw is still singing, and singing well. A December 2017 recital at the 92nd Street Y with the Brentano String Quartet was a welcome demonstration of the textual acuity, emotional honesty and clean, unfussy lyricism that marked Upshaw’s singing during her twenty seasons on the roster of the Metropolitan Opera. But what Upshaw calls her “performing work” has become less of a priority since she started to devote more of her time to teaching. “Of course I want to continue to  make the music I make, and to collaborate with composers and artists whose work excites me,” she says, “but the work I do with the students at Bard and at Tanglewood is a different kind of collaboration, if that makes sense. It’s a collaboration with the future.”

UPSHAW'S OWN MUSICAL EDUCATION began at home. “My first love of music came from my parents—we had music in the house all the time. What was playing was Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary. My parents were very involved in the civil rights movement, and that was their music. I did study piano and oboe, which was important. It’s not always essential for everyone, but in general I find that the strongest musicians have studied an instrument at some point. And choir—I had a strong choral background. I picked the college I went to, Illinois Wesleyan, because I was taken to a choir concert there. At that age, I was actually more interested in music theater, but I ended up getting a straight music degree—a bachelor’s in vocal performance—and had all these requirements that took me into song repertoire. I made the turn then to concentrate on what we call ‘classical’ music.” 

After college, Upshaw auditioned for graduate school. Soprano Ellen Faull, who was then teaching at the Juilliard School and at Manhattan School of Music, recommended that Upshaw consider MSM. “I took her advice. She said she’d be interested in taking me as a student. So that’s where I went. But I’m not particularly a big-city kid, and the city was terrifying to me. The first semester was very hard. Even back then, Manhattan School was huge—lots of singers. That was probably very good for me, but I kept wanting to find my own place in it all. I was required to take some opera classes, but that was not necessarily my favorite part of my education. I was happier working on song and chamber music, and I got a little involved in the contemporary music ensemble, which I was very drawn to.”

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Upshaw at Bard
© Dario Acosta

ON FAULL'S ADVICE, UPSHAW ENTERED the Met National Council auditions. She did not advance to the finals, but her performance brought her to the attention of the Met, which offered her a spot in the company’s young-artist program. “That’s when I fell in love with opera. I was able to go to any rehearsal at the Met and watch these amazing people at work. And of course you’ve got that fabulous orchestra. I’ve since learned that it is not the norm that all the pieces fit together well. I tell my students that a lot—when it works, opera is the most amazing experience, and when it doesn’t work as well, it’s hard work. Very hard work.

“I remember walking into a rehearsal at the Met that was not mine, because I knew Teresa Stratas was in the building, and I wanted to watch her work. Now, she is a very, very different singer and person than I am, but I was so struck by the integrity, and the passion, and the respect for her work. Teresa was also very there, you know, very present—talking to the director and the music director. She was not showing off, she was not on display. She was working. I really admired that. She was so serious.

“I have always taken my work quite seriously. I think that everybody comes to this differently, but I’ve certainly observed that sometimes I have taken something more seriously than other people. What I hope is that I don’t take myself too seriously, you know?

“The greatest singers I’ve worked with are all quite deep and reflective people. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was like that, and she had a huge impact on me. And Gerry Finley, too—just in terms of the quality of the work. Both of them were quite reflective people. Thoughtful people. They knew themselves really well and had a respect for their work and for the work of their colleagues that I think is essential.”

Upshaw says part of the reason she took the position she now has at Tanglewood was to create a program that encouraged just the sort of reflection she cites. “I see Tanglewood as kind of the musician’s MacDowell Colony. You are producing a lot, you’re performing a lot. But you are also figuring out why you’re doing what you’re doing—and you need the opportunity to reflect on that. I am passionate about that. It’s part of the program we have created at Bard as well.

“Tanglewood was such a powerful, life-changing experience for me when I was a Tanglewood Fellow there in 1983. That setting is just gorgeous, and there’s a great deal of history there. I also had the joy of working with Phyllis Curtin, who was such a force and really inspired so many young singers—it was extraordinary. Being there allowed me to gain a better understanding of why I was singing—why did I need to sing?  

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At Bard with pianist Wei Zhou and mezzo Kelly Newberry
© Karl Rabe

“LATER ON IN MY CAREER, when I was performing at Tanglewood, the administration there asked me to come do a class with the students, which they often do, especially with American singers. I started doing little residencies at Tanglewood. And then I did a little bit longer residencies. After I had taught at Tanglewood a bit, I became invested in the program, and I really started to care a lot about how the program was organized. Actually, [Tanglewood Music Center director] Ellen Highstein asked me to take the position that I have right now, head of the vocal arts program, ten or fifteen years ago, probably fifteen years ago now. And I wasn’t ready to take on that kind of responsibility at that time. But from that point, I became more and more interested in trying to understand how things were put together administratively—what the leadership was. Then one summer, I offered an opinion about a particular situation, and I was very surprised that Ellen turned around and said, ‘Well, how would you like to lead this?’ At that point, I thought, ‘Yeah, I would like that.’ 

“Nobody could take Phyllis Curtin’s place—she died almost two years ago, but she is still such a presence—but her role as master teacher now belongs to Sanford Sylvan. Sandy is the vocal technician that’s in residence. The students have voice class twice a week with him, and they have private lessons with him. He’s a wonderful teacher who had already been teaching with us at Bard Conservatory, where he’s one of our three voice teachers. 

“At Tanglewood, what I wanted to offer to the singers was an experience over the seven or eight weeks we have them that would have them jumping into a bit of song repertoire, a bit of chamber music, a bit of orchestral performance and hopefully some brand-new new music, too—having a collaborative experience with a composer. So that’s the goal every summer now, which before was not a specific goal for every singer. This year we have a class that’s a bit larger because of the demands of A Quiet Place, which we’re doing in August. But it’s typically around fifteen.” 

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© Dario Acosta

WHAT KIND OF SINGER does Upshaw want for the Tanglewood program? “We look at the voice, and the quality, the talent in communication. We are also looking for students we think we can help guide—someone who’s open to working collaboratively. That’s what it’s all about. The singers in the program tend to be people who have just finished grad school. It’s a small enough group, and we get enough applicants, that we really are able to stick to a certain level of artist. That’s the level I was most interested in at Bard, too. I actually began at Bard in 2004, before I took the position at Tanglewood. When Bard first approached me, they were creating an undergraduate conservatory, and I said I didn’t want to create an undergraduate vocal program. I was more interested in the openness and the skill level of graduate-level students.” 

According to Bard College Conservatory of Music’s website, its graduate vocal arts program is “conceived, designed and led” by Upshaw, and she speaks about it with great pride. The program, which started in 2006, was planned to be small—only up to nine students in each class—with an emphasis on meeting the challenges of a musician’s life in the twenty-first century.

“We took a couple of years creating the curriculum. When we started that process at Bard, I thought, ‘What was lacking in my own experience in grad school? What did I think was terrific about it?’ I knew I was interested in a more intimate program. When I go hear someone perform—whether it’s dance, theater, opera or song, chamber music, whatever—I’m moved only when I feel something has been given to me in the most generous, open, vulnerable way. I am moved when I feel I have somehow shared with that performer, or through that performer, even with the rest of the audience sitting around me, something about the human condition that we need, either comfort about, or we can celebrate together. And I can’t be moved, really, unless the person or persons performing know themselves well, and know what it is that they can uniquely offer through the piece. 

“If a performer’s goal is to exude confidence more than anything else, and show what they can do, I’m not going to be moved. So I wanted a program at Bard that would require reflection about your work. That’s what drives this. I felt an intimate program was important—a small program. There’s a huge amount of work that you have to do on your own as a singer, but when the program is intimate, everyone learns to trust one another, to experience things as a group, in addition to all the individual work they must do. And because it’s important for singers to be comfortable in their own bodies, I wanted to be sure that we have Alexander [technique] lessons, weekly private lessons, just like they have their voice lesson weekly with their voice teacher. It took me a few years to incorporate it, but we also have straight acting class—monologues and scenes, and eventually, at the end of the semester, they also bring in some of their arias, or their songs. 

“Our program at Bard is centered on the core seminar classes. There are four semesters in a two-year program, so there are four core seminars. The course I love the most is called ‘Creating Unique Performance Opportunities.’ The students are put into two groups of three or four, and they do everything—they choose their program, they rehearse, they do the research, they do their program notes, they find the venue, they book the concert and do all the publicity. It has to be off-campus, and in the community around Bard. All of this is done by Thanksgiving. So it’s a very quick turnaround, very intense class, but it shows them that they can create their own performance opportunities. The impetus for that class comes from me believing things are constantly evolving in the business, and in the work. I truly believe that the most exciting thing about the future in music is the new young musicians that are coming along and saying they want to do this. They find a way to say what they want to say with their music. And so they need a place they can create for themselves in which to say what they want to say with their work. 

“I didn’t have an experience like this when I was in school, but this course shows them that this is not so difficult, really. To a young musician, the business, at least in the big cities, can feel like a big machine that you’ve got to find your way into. ‘How am I going to be heard, and how am I going to be appreciated?’ You really need to take initiative, rather than to give others all the power.

“One of the most important things that young singers who want to make performing the focus of their lives need to learn is that they have to make their own decisions. No one is going to make this possible for them. They really have to search and find out who they are.

“Our goal at Bard is to instill in the students excitement for collaboration and connecting with other people through the art form. It can be a lonely road, sometimes, being a singing artist. But I have found in my own experience that the greatest work that I can do has always been in collaboration with someone else.

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In class at Bard with students and guest soprano Lucy Shelton
© Karl Rabe

“A big conservatory is not for everybody. We do fully staged opera [at Bard], but not every year—it’s every other year. Otherwise we’re doing opera scenes with piano. We only have four semesters, but they’re really honing their skills through song, chamber music, orchestral and opera. And for me, one of the most important starting points is text—no matter what the form. Whether you’re working with a full opera libretto or you’re working with an amazing poem that has been set to music for the first time, that work of connecting to text, and connecting to expressive diction, is the same. I did not sing very much opera in grad school, but in my professional life, at least fifty percent of my time was in opera—and some seasons it was more than that. And so I tell my students, it’s really important to hone all of these skills. The skills and the tools are what they need to be focusing on when they are in school.

“This past summer, at Tanglewood, we had this very young, extremely talented tenor, who sang in a master class for Simon Keenlyside. Simon just stepped back afterwards, and he said, ‘Beautiful. How old are you?’ And the young man said, ‘Twenty two.’ And Simon said, ‘Just stay in school. Just find yourself. You’ve got a great teacher. Just don’t jump out there too soon.’

“This singer was especially young, but for many singers, a lot happens in their mid twenties. You may not be ready for a career. You may go through a lot of changes in your technique. You have to know how to guide yourself—to know what is useful to you, and what’s not going to be useful to you. In so many ways, you have the responsibility to educate yourself.” spacer 

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