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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.



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.


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.


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."

The Dresser believes that it would have been better for Ross and Upshaw to have more actively treated this occasion as an opportunity to teach the public about their amazing and laudable efforts to bring new classical music and operatic work into general public view. Ross has as much to offer on the subject as Upshaw. As it played out (and check out how Ross promoted the program on his website The Rest Is Noise with a colorful performance photo of Upshaw and the unusual audio clip of Upshaw singing from Osvaldo Golijov's Ayre), the event seemed like a whispered conversation dotted with a few colorful bursts of video footage and audio sound bytes.

In her poem "Silhouette of Woman Alone" from her new book Ashes in Midair, winner of the Many Mountains Moving Press Poetry Book Prize selected by Yusef Komunyakaa, Susan Settlemyre Williams evokes a woman defined and swallowed up by traumatic loss. While the poem exposes, it also creates the kind of dramatic tension that Dawn Upshaw develops in L'Amour de loin as Clémence, a 12th century woman loved from afar by a young, idealistic troubadour.


Defined by what's cut away:
Last name. Breast.
What's left after the cutting is silence.

White bath. Snow light on gray walls.
Two rooms close and cold as a snow fort.
The windows look blank

on other walls, a flat roof. She tilts the blinds
till nothing comes in but light. In the stillness
the razor's snick on her legs is loud.

And why bother? No one will know how
smooth she is all over. Ice sculpture
under the surgeon's white scrawl.

All the color cut away. She forgets
if she has color sealed inside. She only sees
how sleek her vacancy has grown.

Once she went out at two a.m.
to watch the meteors. Lay down on the pavement
and disappeared. Over her, stars

blindly scribbled the dark, their flight
sudden, then broken off.

Susan Settlemyre Williams
from Ashes in Midair

Copyright © 2008 by Susan Settlemyre Williams


Comments (1)

Heddy Reid:

That was fascinating. What a great post--thanks so much. How powerful to hear Dawn Upshaw sing the Messiaen phrase over and over.

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