Feature Article

Interview:  A Talk with Soprano Dawn Upshaw

November, 2005

Jason Victor Serinus


Less 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?

Dawn Upshaw: About 15 minutes. Is that going to be enough?

JVS: Well, it's going to have to be.  [As things turned out, we spoke for a good 20 minutes.]

I first got a chance to listen to the advance CD-R of Ayre last night. I don't' have translations.

DU: I'm eager to know what your impressions are when you listen for the first time without translations.

JVS: My first thought was, Dawn Upshaw is like the Meryl Streep of vocalism.

DU: [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.]

JVS: Meryl 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 former live.

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?

DU: Yes, 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 cultures juxtaposed.

JVS: You asked me what I thought of the disc. My first question was, is Dawn the only vocalist on this?

DU: [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 voice.

DU: It's 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 are you?

DU: I am 45.

JVS: Cool.

DU: I'm 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 never have.

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 certain direction.

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.

JVS: Will you have the same instrumentation?

DU: We're 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 Ayre. 

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 about it.

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.

JVS: I've 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.

DU: Oh please do. I'm looking forward to coming there. I haven't been there before.

JVS: If 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 you.

It's been great talking to you.


- Jason Victor Serinus -

Copyright 2005 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity

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