The Red Face of a Bold Soprano
For nine consecutive years, The New Yorker magazine has been hosting an annual festival led by the accomplished writers of the 83-year-old publication to celebrate well-known artists and politicians featured in issues of the magazine. Many of the events in the three-day festival this year focused on the 2008 presidential election with New Yorker staff and guests helping register New Yorkers who had not previously registered to vote.
UPSHAW: A CATALYST FOR NEW WORK
Photo by Dario Acosta
On October 4, 2008, the Dresser attended a low-key and nonpolitical talk between The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross (author of The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century) and soprano Dawn Upshaw. The image the Dresser left with was the embarrassment of a very down-to-earth performer who seems to be constantly judging herself. Emphasizing this behavior was a film clip showing director Peter Sellars coaching Upshaw about how he wanted her to make large gestures in a scene where she washes her hands. The intensity of self-doubt about whether she could move in the way Sellars suggests produced a poignant moment when Upshaw cupped Sellars face. Instantly the audience knew that this is part of Upshaw's process in finding the intensity required of her roles. And these roles tend to be characters that require thoughtful development because the operas are brand new.
Awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 2007 because she represents "a catalyst for the creation of numerous works through her passionate advocacy of contemporary composers, both established and emerging," Upshaw sat anxiously on the stage of the Alvin Ailey Citigroup Theater as she and Alex Ross watched herself in a video clip from Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de loin. Finnish composer Saariaho, who moved to Paris and was influenced by spectralist composers Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail, created L'Amour de loin for Upshaw. Other opportunities created for Upshaw include roles in such works as John Harbison's opera The Great Gatsby, John Adam's oratorio El Niño and two works by Osvaldo Golijov-- Ainadamar, a chamber opera, and Ayre, a song-cycle.
FROM A FAMILY WITH A MESSAGE
What's interesting about Upshaw's development as musician (this is the term she prefers for herself) is that she grew up in a family singing protest songs of the 1960's. (They called themselves the Upshaw Family Singers.) She quipped that hers was a "family with a message." She studied piano and oboe. While she loved oboe, she "felt best when singing." However, in high school she didn't make the top choir. If she had a dream, it was to become a singer-songwriter but she quickly rejoined that she had "no gift as a songwriter."
Revealing about what motivates her is that "satisfaction is not my goal" as is not ticking off, from a list, the top opera houses where most opera singers might want to perform. She says what interests her is process. However, the process that most interests her lately is working with young singers as she is doing at Bard College. She worries about them and said she was "not sure where [they] were headed still exists." Her best advice to them is to "build your own program with two to three other students and learn how to promote what your doing in your community." And she cautioned to do all of this for "the great love of it" and not expect any money for the effort.
A WHISPERED CONVERSATION
What surprised the Dresser about the event was that it had a hefty entrance fee of $35. Although the auditorium was respectably filled, she suspects that there were a number of seats filled without money changing hands by opera insiders and local university students. Given the current economic situation in the United States, the Dresser guesses that a lower-priced ticket might have encouraged more people to attend. Between Ross and Upshaw, certain subjects were touched on as if everyone in the dance theater knew what they knew. Understandably Upshaw's 2006 bout with cancer, which was the same cancer that killed Upshaw's dear friend soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, was mentioned quickly without any background. Connecting the dots after the Festival event, the Dresser has a fuller appreciation about why Upshaw seemed so circumspect as if she was guarding herself from too much public exposure. Also not mentioned was that Ross was awarded a 2008 MacArthur for "offering both highly specialized and casual readers new ways of thinking about the music of the past and its place in our future."