Brilliant Careers: All-American diva

Equally at home with Mozart and Gershwin, Dawn Upshaw is a rarity among classical singers.


Jamie James
March 31, 1999 12:00AM (UTC)

"When opera singers try to expand their repertoire into the popular realm, they usually humiliate themselves -- except when they sing the folk songs of their native lands. Some of Jussi Bjvrling's finest recordings are those of Swedish folk songs; Enrico Caruso will be remembered as much for his Neapolitan songs as for any of his stage roles. The great British contralto Kathleen Ferrier was criticized for singing English folk ballads such as "I Know Where I'm Going" and "Blow the Wind Southerly," on the grounds that they were "artistically inferior," yet her recordings of them have proved to be her most beloved legacy.

Dawn Upshaw, the finest American soprano of her generation, grew up in Park Forest, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, and the folk music there is the American pop song: Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, the Broadway tunes of Blitzstein, Bernstein and Sondheim (there's a limerick or a law firm in there somewhere). While continuing to create new roles for the opera stage, Upshaw, in the middle of her career, has discovered the classic pop songs of her parents' and grandparents' generation, and performs them in a classy style
that re-creates what they might have sounded like when they were new.

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We have become accustomed to hearing most of these standards performed by jazz musicians: "Thou Swell" swings when Ella Fitzgerald sings it; Chet Baker finds every blue note in "Someone to Watch Over Me." But they were written for the stage, and were originally sung by Broadway babies backed up by a brassy
Broadway orchestra. Upshaw's pure, limpid soprano, liquid sunshine, is ideal for this repertoire, and her acting experience in opera has honed her diction and delivery to the point that Ira Gershwin and Lorenz Hart seem wittier than ever.

Upshaw and her producer at Nonesuch Records, Tommy Krasker, go about their work in an almost scholarly way. Their most recent collaboration, "Dawn Upshaw Sings Vernon Duke," is a good example. Vernon Duke (1903-69), born Vladimir Alexandrovitch Dukelsky, composed ballets for Diaghilev and symphonic works for Koussevitzky that are now forgotten. And after he emigrated to America, he wrote pop songs such as "April in Paris" and "I Like the Likes of You,"
which will be heard as long as men and women want to go on dates and drink cocktails. Some people, fancying themselves purists, object that Upshaw's performances of these pop songs are too pretty, lacking the grit and verve that the material requires. But that's just the point: Duke wrote "I Like the Likes of You" for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1934, and Upshaw's recording recaptures the lilting, goofy charm the tune might have had on its first night
out. Light lyric sopranos such as Barbara Cook and Julie Andrews are Broadway every bit as much as Ethel Merman.

Upshaw's career, thus far, has been remarkable for its creative vigor and complete absence of errors. Over the past 12 years, I have interviewed most of the major opera stars in the world, and I can state without hesitation (and without naming names) that, as a group, few of them are highly intelligent people. I don't say they're dumb, but like athletes and dancers, their gift is one of the flesh, not of the mind. If they're lucky enough to find good management, they put together a portfolio of a dozen roles that suit
them, and stick with them to the ends of their careers. Others blunder into repertoire that is completely wrong for them: the lyric soprano who inexplicably imagines herself as a Wagnerian heroine, the Verdi tenor who always wanted to try his hand at Viennese operetta.

Upshaw is one of a handful of classical singers whose genius lies as much in her choice of material as in the delivery of it. The careers of most opera singers are as good as the advice they receive; yet hers, almost from the beginning, has unfolded as though following a script. "From the beginning," she says thoughtfully, "I've had a certain vision of how I wanted things to go. Sometimes I feel I'm one step ahead. In my relationships with my managers,
record companies and so forth, I've been fortunate enough to be in the lead, walking ahead."

Like all young musicians, she had to establish her talent before she was able to exert that sort of control. In Upshaw's case the gift was so readily apparent that it was a relatively swift process. She grew up in a musical family, but not the sort that usually leads to the opera stage. Born in Nashville, Tenn., and raised in Park Forest, as a child she performed folk music and
sang civil-rights protest songs with her parents and sister. Calling
themselves the Upshaw Family Singers, they played at churches and town halls. They were a close-knit family: In 1972, at the age of 12, when she attended the famed Interlochen music camp (she was an oboe player at the time), instead of staying at the dorms like the other kids, she went camping on the dunes by Lake Michigan with her mother.

She discovered classical music while studying music at Illinois Wesleyan University with the man who would eventually become her father-in-law, musicologist David Nott. "Suddenly I was entering this new world of music and thinking, Wow! This was a world and a repertory I needed to investigate. The possibilities seemed endless." After graduating from college, she attended the
Manhattan School of Music, where she studied with the legendary voice teacher Ellen Faull. Even more influential, perhaps, were the summers she spent at the Aspen Festival, where she studied with the late American mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani. DeGaetani instilled in her a love of contemporary music, and taught her that in all vocal music, the text is supreme.

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In 1984 Upshaw won a place in the Young Artists Development program of the Metropolitan Opera. Later that year she made her debut with the company in "Rigoletto," in the role of the Countess Ceprano. "I had two lines," she recalls with a chuckle. Thus began and ended her career as a Verdian; she has never had any use for the standard Romantic repertoire that most opera singers concentrate on.

Within five years, she had established herself as the Met's leading soubrette (pace la Battle), distinguishing herself in romantic, girlish Mozart roles such as Susanna in "Figaro" and Pamina in "The Magic Flute." James Levine, the Met's music director, made a project of her. As early as 1986, he brought her to Berlin for a debut at the Philharmonie, in Mahler's Symphony No. 4. He also cast her in two Wagner roles at the Met: as the Wood Bird in "Siegfried" and the Shepherd Boy in "Tannhauser." They're tiny roles -- the Wood Bird is actually sung offstage -- but the radiant freshness of her voice, sparkling with youth, made Upshaw ideal for the parts.

Any other opera singer of her stature would be far too grand to sing the Shepherd Boy's hymn to May, an exquisite ditty lasting scarcely a minute, but she returned to the Met to sing the part just last season. "In the Met production, they don't use makeup for the Shepherd Boy, and since I wear my hair short anyway, I can just step into the costume and sing. I feel like there's nothing between me and the audience. There's something really pure about it."

When I first interviewed her in 1990, I wrote, "There is a refreshing down-to-earth quality about Dawn Upshaw, almost as though she is reserving all her sophistication for her music." I cringe as I reread that sentence, which seems to imply that offstage she is a doltish clod. Yet it's true: There's not a trace of diva temperament about her. Four years ago, she revealed to a reporter for the New York Times that she still scrubs the bathrooms in the house in Westchester County, N.Y., where she lives with her husband, Michael Nott, and her two young children. "Oh, yeah. I still do.
I do lots of scrubbing. I don't think of myself as some sort of queen," she said. "We have a very ordinary household." (Just try to picture Callas rolling up her sleeves and scrubbing the bathtub.)

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Yet the choices she has made as a musician reveal a subtle, brilliant -- and, yes, sophisticated -- mind at work. When I met her for that first interview, Upshaw had recently won the Grammy award for the first of her solo recordings with Nonesuch Records, "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," with the Orchestra of St. Luke's conducted by David Zinman, with whom she has since collaborated often. There's nothing particularly inspired about the choice of the title work, a haunting, elegiac piece by Samuel Barber, setting a reminiscence of childhood by James Agee. In fact, it's something of a chestnut, and was probably selected in the hope that the popularity of the piece would give legs to the artist's debut recording with the label. But look at how she fills out the
disc: the aria "What a Curse for a Woman is a Timid Man," from an obscure one-act radio opera by Gian Carlo Menotti called "The Old Maid and the Thief"; John Harbison's evocative, at moments ecstatic, settings of visionary poems by a 16th century Indian woman named Mirabai; and Anne Trulove's thrilling aria "No Word from Tom," from Igor Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress." It's a perfect little program. The theme is longing, the forms it can take -- nostalgia, sexual desire, spiritual quest -- but it's not overstated. It's an
all-American album (let it not be forgotten that Stravinsky composed "The Rake's Progress" in Hollywood while Auden and Kallman were writing the libretto in Greenwich Village). It brings attention to a composer who, by 1989, had begun to be neglected (Menotti) and champions a contemporary composer (Harbison) by putting him on a platform with Barber and Stravinsky. And it is divinely sung.

"Knoxville: Summer of 1915" and all of its successors have been quite different from each other, yet they have all been chosen boldly and performed with exquisite refinement. An Upshaw program is immediately recognizable by its mingling of the familiar and the obscure, the homely and the exotic, yet it always makes musical sense. Most programming of contemporary music attempts to lure the audience in by including some golden oldies, sweetening the Scandinavian atonality with Mozart or Haydn. It's done in the name of eclecticism, but the result is often illogical, and, despite learned program notes searching for a rationale, it creates a puzzling, unreal sound world. Upshaw's programs, on the other hand, are pure and organic, like a musical garden.

The follow-up to "Knoxville" was a set called "The Girl With the Orange Lips," which included Ravel's famous settings of Mallarmé; some songs by Stravinsky based upon Russian and Japanese poetry; a rapturous lyric to Psyché by Manuel de Falla; four hypnotic Hindu songs by Maurice Delage, a minor student of Ravel's; and, anchoring the program, a haunting suite by the contemporary American composer Earl Kim, setting Apollinaire and Rimbaud, from which the album takes its title. The result is a voyage into an ethereal realm of myth and illusion, shimmering with fabulous, gemlike color. In 1991 "The Girl With the Orange Lips," like "Knoxville: Summer of 1915" before it, won the Grammy for best classical vocal performance.

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Later that year, Upshaw sang the solo part on the bestselling classical album ever, Henryk Górecki's Symphony No. 3, subtitled "Symphony of Sorrowful
Songs," performed by the London Sinfonietta conducted by David Zinman. The disc has sold more than 1 million units worldwide. This is a serious work, a skillful exercise in polyphony (one critic said that if Bach were alive today, he might be writing
music like this) that weaves an evocative mood of misery, woe and lamentation. It is one of the most depressing pieces of music ever written, and its popular success remains a complete mystery to me. The texts that Upshaw sings are a 15th-century Polish prayer known as the Holy Cross Lament, a prayer written by an 18-year-old girl on the wall of a Gestapo prison during World War II and a Polish folk song about a mother in wartime trying to find the body of her dead baby son. Hardly the stuff of platinum, one would have thought. Yet when it came out, David Zinman said, "It changes people's lives. They're stunned. They don't know what it is. I'm told people stop their cars when they hear it on the radio." Upshaw's performance is a fine one, ranging in tone from uninflected purity to intense passion, but it remains an anomaly in her career.

Aside from the five minutes of music for the Wood Bird and the Shepherd Boy, the Countess Ceprano's five seconds and an occasional Christmastime performance as Gretel in Engelbert Humperdinck's children's opera, the 19th century remains a void in Upshaw's opera career. She is a woman of two centuries, the 18th and the 20th: Mozart and Handel, Debussy and Stravinsky are her composers. In 1992 she appeared in the role of the angel in Peter Sellars' production of Olivier Messiaen's sole opera, "St. Francis of Assisi," the first since the work's premiere. The staging was controversial, using a blinding array of fluorescent tubes and video
monitors to illustrate the life of the simple saint, but everyone, critics and audience alike, agreed that Upshaw was radiant as the angel. (She sang the role again last summer, when the production was revived at the Salzburg Festival.)

Soon Upshaw will be a singer of two millennia: on Dec. 20 of this year (with performances extending into next January), she will create the role of Daisy Buchanan in John Harbison's new opera, "The Great Gatsby." If you're one of those people who think it's interesting to insist that the millennium doesn't begin until 2001, she is also scheduled to take part in the world premiere of Finnish composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen's first
opera, "The Woman and the Ape," at the Aix-en-Provence Festival of that year. She devotes much of her time to looking for new music -- of course, it is every young composer's dream to be championed by Dawn Upshaw. Yet, she says, she is very picky, choosing no more than 5 to 10 percent of the compositions that are submitted to her: "Most of what I receive does not touch me," she explains, "but I'm still fascinated by what's out there."

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If Dawn Upshaw has a flaw as an artist, it's that she is too nice. Wisely, she has chosen the stage roles that suit her sunny good nature -- angel, romantic servant girl, princess lost in a fairyland of bird-catchers and dragons. It will be interesting to see how she copes with the emotionally darker world of F. Scott Fitzgerald, as created for her by Harbison.
In her pop collections, she has chosen the breezy over the torchy, the sweet over the bittersweet, which can lend a note of sameness to the discs. (Of course, the same might be said of a collection of Wagner arias by Birgit Nilsson, or of Caruso's discs of Neapolitan songs.)

For her Rodgers and Hart collection, typically, she dug up a few rarities that only the most devoted Broadway fanatics had heard: Come on, did you really know "He Was Too Good to Me," a number cut from "Simple Simon" (1930)? She ranges effortlessly from moods of wistful yearning to sentimental warmth to sheer euphoria. Some critics complained that compared with the jazz singers who took this material and made it their own, Upshaw isn't sexy enough.
They may be right about that, but I would respond that she sure knows how to flirt. And if you have too much euphoria in your life, there's always Górecki.


Jamie James

Jamie James writes for the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly and other publications.

MORE FROM Jamie James



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