Possibility rings in a soprano’s voice

Times Staff Writer

DAWN UPSHAW, who will sing Lukas Foss’ troubling “Time Cycle” with the Los Angeles Philharmonic next weekend, performed these musically far-reaching 1960 settings of deep, dark texts by Auden, Housman, Kafka and Nietzsche last season with the Boston Symphony at Carnegie Hall. It was a sultry fall evening, and the soprano, who has been called the sweetheart of American singers, rendered the topics of time, transience and lust with a naked intensity far removed from her days as the Met’s pet soubrette.

“I want more from the physical act of singing,” she said the next day. “I have now had so many experiences where I feel one with the production of sound, where I feel now that it is really coming from my feet or somewhere else beyond my voice.

“Any voice teacher, of course, would tell you that is not a very great image. But when my breathing and production of sound feel right and everything is activated, I become exhilarated. I don’t want to say it’s like a drug high, but it can get to that point for me in a performance. It’s like an amazingly sensual -- almost sexual -- experience. Last night would I say that I was gratified in that way? I think certainly through a lot of it, if not every moment.”


As things have turned out, at least one voice teacher does approve of that image. When I met again with Upshaw last month, it was here in upstate New York at Bard College, where she heads the vocal program for the school’s new music conservatory. Her hair was shorter, shorter even than it had been 16 years ago, when she made “The Girl With Orange Lips” -- a languidly seductive CD in which an angelically innocent voice encounters rich, sensual French song with fresh ardor.

Earlier this year, Upshaw, 46, successfully completed chemotherapy for early-stage breast cancer, and a sliver of gray has given her hair, as it grows in, a silver lining, strongly delineating her facial features and picking up the sparkle in her eyes. Her laugh was easy, but her robust expressions have taken on a new dimension. She remains a radiant soprano, but the nature of that radiance has, over the last two decades, radically changed.

A singer transformed

UPSHAW once seemed the least physical singer on the planet. Now -- in a remarkable transformation -- she might be the most.

She reached the height of her fame in the early ‘90s on a recording of Henryk Gorecki’s Third Symphony. Intended as an expression of inexpressible pain and titled “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” this hourlong Holocaust symphony, on a Nonesuch CD, transcended horror to provide a glimpse of an ethereal plane. Thanks in great part to Upshaw’s beatifically disembodied voice, the disc became a surprise international bestseller, rising high on pop charts and turning her from a modest Mozartean at the Metropolitan Opera into a momentary media sensation.

Last month at Bard, a hundred miles up the Hudson from New York City, Upshaw was hanging out with a composer who has more recently taken the world by storm: Osvaldo Golijov. Together they ran a workshop for young singers and composers sponsored by Bard and Carnegie Hall.

“The reason to be here and not at other programs,” Golijov told students at one of Upshaw’s voice seminars, “is that other programs are about power. Hundreds of singers shuttle from opera house to opera house belting. That’s great for covering all the 19th century emotions. But we have a whole new range of emotions that is our collective experience. The great thing about Dawn is that her singing can stretch boundaries.”


Golijov, whose music is aggressively multicultural, called Upshaw his muse and credited her with “redefining the definition of soprano.” “Before I met Dawn,” he said, “I had written very little for voice.” The first song he wrote for her, “Lua Descolorida” (Colorless Moon) in 1999, was inserted two years later in his breakthrough hit, “La Pasion segun San Marcos” (St. Mark Passion), as a poignant melody representing the tears of the Apostle Peter. Now it serves as one of Golijov’s Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra, which Upshaw will also sing with the Philharmonic.

Upshaw, who comes from Nashville, and Golijov, an Argentine Jew who lives in Boston and picks up cultural influences wherever he goes like a magnet drawing metal flakes, are curious collaborators. The soprano is central to his two major post-”Pasion” works: the opera “Ainadamar,” in which she created the role of the actress Margarita Xirgu, and the extravagantly eclectic song cycle “Ayre.”

“It’s really strange,” Upshaw said, “how his music struck a chord deep inside me the first time I heard it. As he was talking to my class, I sat there thinking how amazing it is that he comes from a background so completely different in most ways from my own. And yet you can meet somebody you don’t have very much in common with and suddenly find that you share your experiences.”

Upshaw and Golijov eagerly turn each other on to different kinds of music, and the seminar was meant to demonstrate the variety of singing that interested them. Upshaw’s MacBook was hooked up to a sound system and projector, and she scrolled back and forth through her iTunes collection to find things. To get from Icelandic pop star Bjork to Portuguese fado queen Amalia Rodrigues, she passed the early music group Apollo’s Fire singing Monteverdi, the Russian jazz violist and film composer Ljova, Joni Mitchell, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s recording of Bach cantatas, Miles Davis, avant-garde Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti, jazz big-band leader Maria Schneider, Donizetti’s opera “L’Elisir d’Amore” and Steely Dan.

“I had some wonderful voice teachers,” Upshaw later remarked over lunch at the Bard faculty dining room, speaking about her ever-growing range of musical interests. “But I would have liked to have been asked to be more open to music of other cultures. The training sometimes for classical singers seems to rely too much on consistent sound, and that can limit expression.”

A consistency of sound almost too untarnished to be real is what originally attracted attention to Upshaw. On her first CD, recorded in 1986 shortly after she had won the Walter W. Naumburg Vocal Competition and been taken under the wing of conductor James Levine at the Met, she sang songs by Wolf, Strauss, Rachmaninoff, Ives and Weill and made all of them equally pretty. Taking on light, bright small roles in opera, she became easily compartmentalized. But she says that was a fluke: She had always as a student sung new music but fell into opera because she was in demand and could make a living at it.


In 1989, Upshaw began recording for Nonesuch, where she was guided into an unpredictable repertory that included new music by John Harbison, George Crumb and John Adams, along with traditional German lieder, bits of populist American opera by the likes of Menotti and Copland, and show tunes by Rodgers and Hart, and Leonard Bernstein. She made an exceptionally fine disc of moody Vernon Duke songs that features a heartbreaking rendition of “Autumn in New York.”

Possibilities take wing

BUT the watershed event in her career was the first time she worked with Peter Sellars. Upshaw portrayed the Angel in Sellars’ groundbreaking 1992 Salzburg Festival production of Messiaen’s epic opera, “St. Francis of Assisi,” a collaboration with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

“Watershed in my career? Forget ‘career,’ ” she said when asked about that first encounter with Sellars. “Every time I work with Peter, my life changes. I look at relationships differently; I look at the world differently.

“Peter sees right through people. After a while, I become just a flood of confession.”

Sellars, more than anyone, has led Upshaw into darker, more personal and spiritual territory. In 1996, he staged Handel’s late oratorio “Theodora” with Upshaw and Lorraine Hunt (before she had married composer Peter Lieberson and added his name) as a Christian ritual so moving that it brought tears to the eyes of normally sober Sellars-bashing British opera critics.

Working with the director in Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s “L’Amour de Loin” at Salzburg in summer 2000, Upshaw helped inspire what has become perhaps the most celebrated new opera of the young century. That winter, Upshaw took yet another spiritual leap when Sellars brought the soprano together with Adams for his “Messiah”-like “El Nino.”

Sellars doesn’t let up with Upshaw. Two years ago, he staged Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag’s “Kafka Fragments” for solo singer and solo violin at Carnegie Hall. Dressed in a T-shirt, flannel shirt and bluejeans, she cleaned house as she simultaneously cleaned out spiritual wounds.


“Kurtag’s music is filled with extraordinary technical challenges, but all you are aware of, with Dawn, is its expressive content,” Sellars said last month after a visit to Bard, where he coached Upshaw’s vocal students.

“She brings into a performance all of her searches for meaning and balance in her life. And her own life is anything but the apple-cheek, girl-next-door persona that everybody puts on her.”

Indeed, for a singer so at one with the physical aspect of her art, Upshaw has struggled with a series of physical problems. Back pain that led to surgery in 1999 forced her to cancel the Ojai Festival premiere of a song cycle Salonen had written for her. In 2003, autumn allergies caused her to miss the local premiere at Walt Disney Concert Hall of a work the French composer Henri Dutilleux had written for her, and the allergies led to a vocal inflammation that grounded her for several months.

Most serious has been the breast cancer diagnosis that followed a routine examination just as she was about to embark on a grimly beautiful new work by Saariaho about the French philosopher Simone Weil, who starved herself to death in protest against the Nazi invasion of her country. Instead of appearing in the premiere of “La Passion de Simone” at Sellars’ New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna in November, Upshaw began chemotherapy, forcing the L.A. Philharmonic, which had co-commissioned the score, to postpone the U.S. premiere from January to October. Semi-staged by Sellars, it is now scheduled to open the orchestra’s 2007-08 season.

“The diagnosis affected me in a big way, and I think I’m just experiencing how only little by little,” she said. Although clear of cancer, she found that she tried to come back too soon with recitals in Oregon and Santa Barbara in February. Susceptible to colds, she then canceled appearances with the St. Louis Symphony but recently has sung recitals at Bard and in New York City, to rave reviews.

“Not being able to sing means a big way of expressing myself and of experiencing the joys and sorrows of life also falls away. All of a sudden, I must start thinking about how I fit into the world in a little different and maybe healthier way,” she said.


“I had a relationship with Bard before any of this happened. And my family” -- she has a teenage son and daughter -- “takes top priority in terms of what am I thinking about every day. Those things continue as some sort of stabilizing elements. But still my world has been shaken.

“And I think it’s really good for me to be thinking about some things I may have thought about before, but not like this.”

Upshaw started treatment while working on Saariaho’s score, a bitter reflection on the meaning of life and death. “I was just talking with Peter about how we’ll do it Los Angeles,” she said.

“I now hope I may have learned something meaningful from my recent experiences that I will be able to share with people in that performance. Not that Peter will give me any other choice.”



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