than 24 hours after I auditioned an advance CD-R of the new recording of
Osvaldo Golijov's Ayre featuring
the incredible vocalism of Dawn Upshaw (see my review in the November 2005
CD/DVD review set), I learned that she was available "in an hour" for a
short phone interview. Without benefit of liner notes or song
translations, and with no time to revisit the CD-R, I had precious little
idea what Upshaw was singing about. All I knew was that the music was
profoundly beautiful, and that I had never before heard her sing with such
a phenomenal wealth of emotional expression.
Jason Victor Serinus:
How much time do we have to talk?
About 15 minutes. Is that going to be enough?
it's going to have to be. [As things turned out, we spoke for a good 20
I first got a chance to listen to the advance CD-R of
Ayre last night. I don't' have
eager to know what your impressions are when you listen for the first time
first thought was, Dawn Upshaw is like the Meryl Streep of vocalism.
[Laughs]. That's the nicest thing anybody could possibly say to me. She's
one of my all-time favorites; I'm a huge fan of hers. But what exactly do
you mean by it? [We both laugh.]
Streep always seems to take on parts that stretch her: new accents, new
characters, new places.
I've seen your Santa Fe debut in L'Amour de Loin;
your recent SFO performance in
Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen;
attended at least three of your Bay
Area recitals, including a recent one that included Schubert and baroque
music and two songs from the '60s; seen you in Berkeley with the Kronos
Quartet, and heard your fabulous "Glitter and Be Gay" and your early
Knoxville, Summer of 1915.
I've also heard your collaborations with Kronos and Chanticleer, the
Do you purposely take on projects that challenge you
vocally and intellectually, or are composers and ensembles drawn to bring
this music to you, or all of the above?
it's a combination. Certainly what I love most about what I do is the
variety. I think I would become incredibly bored if I were sticking to the
same repertoire all the time. And I do feel that stretching myself somehow
makes me a better person. I'm learning about myself, I'm learning about
others, I'm learning about differences and what we all have in common.
I feel for all of us that there's much more inside of
us than we can ever imagine. If through music and doing all kinds of music
in all different styles I can discover how to share different aspects of
myself and different aspects of many other peoples, I'm happy to make that
a kind of a goal.
JVS: I just
read an interview with Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance. She
said she's going back on the road because her new music is talking about
the need for unity and the need to transcend nationalism and all these
divisions and little boxes that are killing us.
DU: Yes. I
totally agree with her.
I think Ayre
shows us how much we all really have in common. It shows what we can all
share together, and how we can all be of support to one another. It's not
explicitly about that in the text. I mean in terms of the way it brings
all of these different and opposing cultures together that used to live
together for centuries in harmony.
It's fascinating to see all of these styles and
asked me what I thought of the disc. My first question was, is Dawn the
only vocalist on this?
[laughing] Yes. All vocal sounds come from my throat [laughing].
JVS: It's an
extraordinary tour de force. I'm used to your sound, I'm used to and love
your highs. I especially love what you do with high tones with your
vibrato. But some of the low singing sounds like a completely different
interesting that you say that. Some other people have asked me about it,
in particular about the third song on the disc.
That was one of the great moments working with
Osvaldo. He played many different things for me: CDs, recordings of others
singers, and recordings of specific tunes that he wanted to arrange for
Ayre. He played the voice of this
woman who was groveling down in her lower range with a harsh quality and
an anger -- a real anger was what I heard more than anything else.
I thought, what a fantastic kind of adventure for
myself. I played around and I realized that we're all so more capable of
doing many more things than we ever ask of ourselves. I'm always searching
for new ways or deeper expression through singing. There was something
really expressive about singing with this particular color that was so
connected to the message of the text, which is about injustice. It comes
from a long time ago, in the 18th century.
JVS: How old
DU: I am 45.
sorry you don't have the liner notes.
JVS: Tell me
about it. Meanwhile, where do you see yourself going in the next few
years? You're in your prime now. Do you have long-term goals?
DU: I really
don't. Perhaps that would be a good idea – to have long-term goals. But I
Let's just say that my goals have always been to keep
looking for interesting, new projects. Whether that means new music or
not, I don't know. But what has grown to be my top priority in maybe the
last ten years is to appreciate my collaborators and my collaborations. I
realize that I really get fed best by paying attention to what the people
I'm working with are about. What they have to say. How we speak to each
other both musically and verbally about music.
I'm constantly learning – constantly, constantly
learning from my colleagues. So I have sort of turned my focus from
searching for repertoire in a way that I used to, to really respecting the
collaboration. So many things grow out of my relationships with my
colleagues, whether it's composers like Osvaldo or John Adams, or
directors like Peter Sellars. I'm feeling most alive these days by really
tending to those relationships and allowing them to flower and grow and
take the directions that they're supposed to take without me forcing a
JVS. Fabulous. You're going to be touring with the
Eighth Blackbird ensemble.
DU: Yes. I'm
so excited. I just finally saw them in live performance this summer in
Tanglewood, knowing that we were going to do this tour together. They were
fantastic. It was such a fun program. It was a great night.
you have the same instrumentation?
bringing along some of the players we need to add who aren't your typical
Blackbird players. I don't know how it's being billed, but the bulk of the
group comes from Eighth Blackbird, with the addition of guitar, ronroco
[an Argentinean fretted lute], double bass, harp, accordion, laptop.
JVS: Is Ayre
your main contribution to the program?
DU: I am
doing one other group of songs with Gustavo Santaollala, whom you may have
noticed plays guitar and ronroco on Ayre and also wrote a
couple of the numbers. He's Argentinean, a producer and composer, and has
known Osvaldo for a long time. He actually produced the recording itself
as well as playing on it.
We're going to do some of his songs. We'll sing a
couple together, and he'll do one or more by himself. The songs were
originally for guitar or ronroco, but we may add the bass player. It's all
going to be rather spontaneous in our preparation for the tour.
We'll do Gustavo's songs first. Then Eighth Blackbird
will play a piece on their own by Dereck Bermel. The second half will be
JVS: When I
interviewed baritone Matthias Goerne a while back, he told me that in
addition to singing the Schubert I heard him do, he had recently performed
Berg's Wozzeck. I asked him what it was like to go from one
to the other. He said it was fine as long as he allowed a period of time
for his voice to settle and reposition.
What is it like for you to be singing down there with
the gravely voice I've never before heard from Dawn Upshaw and then sing
up there in your usual register? Or does your instrument work fine
transitioning between them?
DU: It's a
challenge. I was actually surprised. I remembered wondering how it would
go at the first performance. (I hadn't even had very many opportunities to
run through the piece in any kind of consecutive order, partly because
there wasn't enough rehearsal with the players, and also because the piece
wasn't completed until the last minute.
It's another instance of surprising ourselves and
doing something we thought would be impossible. I just try to be open
Normally I would say that after singing a Mozart
role, if I'm next going to do a concert of music theater songs, I would
want to make sure that I wouldn't't be doing them back to back. Now, after
this experience with Ayre, I throw
all that out the window [laughing]. I'm not sure how it happens.
In this particular case, the greatest change in the
piece occurs with a little break for me – the little instrumental number
after the groveling number – where I can very consciously relax – maybe
even hum – to prepare myself for the upper register of the lullaby.
read that after Cecilia Bartoli finishes a tour, she goes back to work
with her mother to make sure her voice is working fine and everything is
in order. Do you have someone you work with, either periodically or
regularly, to keep yourself on target? Or do you just trust yourself?
DU: I work
with someone once in a while, checking in. Her name is Joan Lader, and she
teaches in New York. I don't see her after every tour or each project by
any means. But it's always good to have another set of ears that knows
your voice really well to just listen every once in a while.
JVS: I look
forward to meeting you backstage after your performance at Stanford.
please do. I'm looking forward to coming there. I haven't been there
you're ever in a piece that requires whistling.
DU: I know
about you. I've already thought of an Ives song I have trouble with. It's
called "Memories A and B. We're sitting in the Opera House." I'll remember
It's been great talking to you.