Soprano Dawn Upshaw
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|It says much about Dawn Upshaw’s sensibilities
as an artist and colleague that she is a favored partner of many leading
musicians, including Richard Goode, Kronos Quartet, James Levine, and Esa-Pekka
Salonen. In her work as a recitalist, and particularly in her work with composers,
Upshaw has become a generative force in concert music, having premiered more
than 25 works in the past decade.
From Carnegie Hall to large and small venues throughout the world she regularly
presents specially designed programs composed of lieder, unusual contemporary
works in many languages, and folk and popular music. She furthers this work
in master classes and workshops with young singers at major music festivals,
conservatories, and liberal arts colleges. She is Artistic Director of the
Vocal Arts Program at the Bard College Conservatory of Music, and a faculty
member of the Tanglewood Music Center.
A four-time Grammy Award winner, Dawn Upshaw is featured on more than 50
recordings, including the million-selling Symphony No. 3 by Henryk Górecki.
Her discography also includes full-length opera recordings of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro; Messiaen’s St. Francoise d’Assise; Stravinsky’s
The Rake’s Progress; John Adams’s El Niño; two volumes of Canteloube’s
Songs of the Auvergne, and
several music theater discs and a dozen recital recordings on Nonesuch.
Dawn Upshaw holds honorary doctorate degrees from Yale, the Manhattan School
of Music, Allegheny College, and Illinois Wesleyan University. She began
her career as a 1984 winner of the Young Concert Artists Auditions and the
1985 Walter W. Naumburg Competition, and was a member of the Metropolitan
Opera Young Artists Development Program.
-- From the Nonesuch Records
-- Throughout this page, names which are links refer to my Interviews
elsewhere on this website. BD
My old college roommate — a timpanist
who eventually edited the school newspaper — knew Upshaw
from his alumni connections, and when she was in Chicago in April of 1991
we arranged to meet at his downtown office. It took a couple of minutes
to get things set up to tape a radio interview, and I tried to make sure
that my guest was comfortable before we started chatting . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: Do
you have to be comfortable to sing?
Dawn Upshaw: Well,
goodness knows, I have sung feeling quite uncomfortable. Whether that’s
just from nerves, or being in a strange position, I don’t know! [Laughs]
BD: It’s often the case that the designers will
have these outlandish costumes, and the stage design will be very raked.
I suppose there are many different ways that you can be distracted and uncomfortable.
BD: How much pure
concentration do you have to have every night when you’re onstage, whether
it be in opera or recital? [Vis-à-vis the recording shown
at right, also see my interview with Roger Norrington.]
DU: That’s a difficult
question to answer. I don’t know where you draw the line, but you have
to be able to keep your concentration so that you aren’t distracted by too
many things. I can only take a few people walking in and out of a concert
before I lose my concentration. Hopefully, that doesn’t happen more
than once a year!
BD: In the opera
you’ve got people walking around backstage, and you’ve got the prompters
screaming at you and the conductor waving the stick, and all the orchestra
players that you can vaguely see...
DU: Yes, but that
doesn’t bother me, really. You become accustomed to the idea that once
you get out onstage it’s another world, and at least wherever I’ve been,
the conductors are not right in front of you.
BD: They’re thirty
DU: Yes, unfortunately
they’re a little far sometimes.
BD: When you walk
out onto the stage, is this the world of the libretto, or is this the world
of the opera house, or is it still the world of Dawn Upshaw?
DU: I would hope
that it’s a true, equal combination of the libretto and music and a bit of
me put in there. But that can’t be helped. I have to face the
fact that it’s me performing, so a lot of me is going to come out.
But that’s not my concentration, hopefully.
BD: Do you put
your stamp on each role that you sing?
DU: I don’t think
of it that way. I try to find out what the role is about, and find
out what the composer might have intended by writing it any particular way.
I don’t think about trying to impress people with Dawn Upshaw, but maybe
I try to impress them with the music. That sounds awfully goody two-shoes,
but I really do think that there’s enough in the role to keep an audience
interested without trying to put your own stamp on it.
BD: Your voice
dictates which roles you will sing. Do you like the characters that
are imposed on your voice?
For the most part. Some people may notice that I don’t sing much Donizetti
and Bellini and Rossini, and one reason is because I don’t feel as strong
a connection with those characters and those personalities as I do with some
of the Mozart roles; although I certainly have some trouble with some Mozart,
too. I may get to some of that other Italian music at some point, but
right now I’ve decided to put it aside. It just doesn’t feel like a
part of me at the moment.
Tell me the secret of singing Mozart!
DU: The secret!
[Laughs] Yes, a wonderful question! I don’t have the secret to
singing Mozart. Mozart has been a great inspiration and a great teacher
for me. Every time I get to a Mozart score, I learn a lot about myself
and I learn a lot about my singing and what needs work. You can’t hide
behind any of Mozart’s music. In some ways it’s all very simple, and
in some ways it’s the most complicated music that I’ll
probably ever sing. Even though I’ve sung a lot of Mozart,
I don’t think of myself as any kind of Mozart specialist because,
in a sense, I feel I have just begun in this career. It just so happens
that there’s been a lot of Mozart to sing because of the bicentennial celebrations.
So I wouldn’t even consider calling myself a specialist.
BD: You’re the
right voice at the right place at the right time, and then you’ll move on?
I imagine I will continue to sing Mozart, but I’m interested in getting into
some other things — like some Richard Strauss, maybe
Sophie in Rosenkavalier or even
Zdenka in Arabella. I would
like to try that role, and some Stravinsky.
Zdenka is one of the few times you could play a girl playing a boy.
DU: That’s right.
BD: It usually
goes to the mezzo soprano.
DU: Yes, right.
BD: You’ve recorded
now a couple of the big Mozart roles — Susanna in Marriage of Figaro, and also Celia in
Lucio Silla. Tell me about
the Lucio Silla since we don’t
know as much about that one.
DU: Lucio Silla is a very early Mozart opera.
I think he was seventeen when he wrote it. It’s an
opera seria with many, many arias,
not very many ensembles, and is a bit static dramatically. This was
a recording with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concentus musicus in Vienna.
BD: Is it a role
you would ever do onstage?
I don’t think it would be all that interesting onstage. Someone could
tackle this opera and make a wonderful production out of it, but whether
an opera company is willing to give it a try? It’s probably been done,
or is even being done this season, with the Mozart celebrations, but it would
have some difficulties onstage.
Is it good that we go beyond just the big three or four Mozarts, and explore
some of his lesser-known operas?
DU: Oh, sure.
There’s some incredible music in this opera, even though it may be a bit
static dramatically. It’s amazing to see what he was writing at such
an early age. It’s fascinating. It still has great strength.
BD: Because it’s
so static, perhaps it works better as a concert or as a recording?
DU: I suppose,
although I would even have some trouble sitting down and listening to it
all in one session. I’d probably want to break it up. In a concert
it’s probably a little bit easier because you have the added visual.
Even though it’s in concert you get to watch the singers, and I think that
still adds something to a performance that you don’t get when you’re just
listening to a recording.
BD: You are also
in a recording of Chérubin, about
a different Cherubino. Tell me about the Massenet work.
DU: It’s another
story about Cherubino, but it’s not Beaumarchais. It’s a new libretto,
and kind of a static, weird story, which is why it probably hasn’t been done
very much onstage. It has some beautiful music — in fact I think my
role gets the most gorgeous music in that opera. I sing the part of
Nina, and it’s very similar to Sophie in Werther. It’s the same sort of
range and somewhat the same character, but she’s a little bit older than
Sophie and a little bit more knowing. It’s a wonderful part for Frederica
von Stade. She does a wonderful job with Cherubino, as she has with
that character for a long time.
* * *
BD: You’ve done
a lot of singing at the Met, where they don’t use supertitles. Have
you sung elsewhere where they do use supertitles?
DU: I have sung
just twice with supertitles — once several years ago
on tour with the Met in Japan they used supertitles for Figaro, and there was another Figaro performance that I did a few years
ago at the Wolf Trap Festival.
BD: Do you like
the use of supertitles?
DU: I have mixed
feelings about it, and I’m not just saying that to ride the fence and be
on everyone’s good side about it. For a long time I was really against
it because I felt that it would be very distracting, and I still have trouble
with that myself. When I’ve gone to an opera and they’ve used supertitles,
I’ve found that I was watching the supertitles more than I was watching what
was going on onstage. At the same time, there’s so many people who
don’t speak the languages that are being sung, and that’s a big problem.
You miss out a lot if you don’t understand what’s being said, not only word
for word but just having an understanding of what’s being said sentence to
sentence. This brings us to another idea, and that is of translating
things and singing them in the vernacular, singing them in our own language,
in English. Again, I have mixed feelings about that. It would
be wonderful for everyone to understand nearly every word that was spoken.
At the same time, there’s something to be said about the poetic beauty of
an opera in its original language. The composer may be choosing to
write a melismatic phrase or something on a more easily sung vowel, so it
gets very complicated.
We just have to get Andrew
Porter translations for everything!
He does a nice job.
BD: It’s a trade-off,
and obviously you gain something and you lose something from each of these
new techniques, so you have to decide what you want the audience to get.
DU: Yes, right.
BD: Where’s the
balance, then, between the music and the drama in opera? [Vis-à-vis
the recording shown at left, also see my interview with David Zinman.]
DU: I sure would
like to see a little bit more of the drama onstage. It’s better than
it used to be.
BD: [With mock
horror] You mean, you don’t want to just stand and sing???
No. I hope I don’t do that. It’s an interesting art form, and
if you don’t take advantage of the fact that there is something going on
dramatically, you really lose out on the wonderful aspect of the art form
of opera. Where else do you get the combination of all of those things
going on at the same time?
BD: And hopefully,
all in a good balance.
BD: Well, who should
be the strong man — the conductor in the pit, or the
DU: I would really
like to see an equal collaboration, not only between the conductor and the
stage director, but also the designer and the singers. I don’t think
the chances of this happening any time soon are very good. We’ve been
through lots of different phases of who is most important, and I just think
that it would be healthiest, and probably best for the music and the operas
themselves if everybody had an equal part. It seems to make sense to
me, but I don’t think the powers that be will listen to me for a long time!
BD: I would assume,
though, that most productions you aim for that, and get as close as you can?
DU: One would hope
BD: Or am I just
a naïve listener?
DU: Everybody has
an idea of what’s most important in the opera. I don’t think that there
are all that many conductors and directors that are just as interested in
what the singer wants to do as what they themselves want to do with the piece...
and perhaps for good reason. Maybe there are some singers who don’t
bother to involve themselves as much as they could, but for the most part
everybody could be a little bit more open-minded and consider the ideas of
* * *
BD: We were talking
earlier about various roles. How do you decide which roles you’ll accept,
and which roles you’ll turn down?
I make a decision about whether I think that they’re appropriate for me right
BD: What is appropriate
DU: There’s no
clear answer to that question. I take a look at the range and at the
demands and the tessitura and the
character. I do the same thing for songs, too. If I’m not sure
of something, I have people in the business whose opinions I respect, and
I can go and ask them to give me some help. But I’m in no big hurry,
so I’ve turned down a few things that I felt were definitely too much for
me right now.
BD: But you might
come back to them five or ten years down the line? [Vis-à-vis
the recording shown at right, also see my interview with James Levine.]
BD: Does it surprise
you when someone comes to you and suggests — or even
offers you a contract for — a role that you think is
DU: Yes, but unfortunately,
I just lose respect a little bit for whoever asks me that, and I learn not
to trust their judgment perhaps as much as I would have otherwise, in terms
of what they think I ought to do. I was very surprised by a very well-known
conductor who thought I should be singing Mimì. This was someone
I had really hoped to work with, and I was just amazed that he could be so
wrong about what was best for me right now. At least that saved me
from feeling too bad about the fact that I haven’t worked with him because
maybe we wouldn’t have been the best matched-up pair. [Laughs]
BD: How do you
divide your career between opera and concerts?
DU: Luckily, I
started out on the concert end of things. Opera came a bit late for
me. I had done very little in college and in graduate school, and once
I became part of the Metropolitan Opera Young Artists program, then I became
much more interested, and got more work in opera. But I still manage
to perform maybe fifteen to twenty recitals a year.
BD: Is this what
you originally wanted to be — a recital singer?
DU: Yes, that was
my first love, and for a while my only love. So I’ve always wanted
to continue that, and chamber music, and so far it’s been a really nice combination
of recital and opera. Operas are scheduled really, really far in advance,
at least the big opera houses, so I end up trying to save a fair amount of
time in my schedule for concert and recital work.
BD: If you wanted
to be a recital singer, why did you accept the position with the Young Artists
program at the Met?
DU: Because I wanted
to find out a little bit more about what was involved in the opera world.
I had had a little taste of opera and knew that I liked it. It’s just
that I was most familiar with preparing songs rather than preparing arias.
I was definitely sold shortly after I was in the program, and knew that I
wanted to sing opera.
BD: How is it different
to prepare a song than to prepare an aria?
DU: It’s not any
None at all???
No. I don’t think it should be any different. The only difference
is perhaps being onstage and what you possibly will be able to achieve there.
With just the so-called accompaniment of piano in a recital and not a full
orchestra, perhaps there are more colors you can choose from. It’s
also a more intimate setting than a large opera house. But
in terms of preparing how I would sing something technically, or how I would
interpret it, there’s no difference.
BD: So you can
find a lot of drama even through a very short song?
DU: Oh, yes.
There’s often much more drama packed into a song than there is in an opera.
The ideas take a much shorter amount of time in a song than the same amount
of time in an opera. Most often that’s the case because the opera is
spread out over such a long period, and often there’s not nearly as much
happening dramatically as there is in a little song.
BD: Is each song
a little opera, or at least full scene?
Mozart’s “Das Veilchen,” that song
about the little violet, is like a little opera. It’s very dramatic!
BD: When you’re
singing the songs, I assume you want the audience to be following along the
DU: I would like
for the audience to come maybe a little bit early to the concert and read
through the poems, try to get a taste for what the poetry is like, what words
were chosen and maybe enjoy the flavor of the poetry, if possible, which
is hard to do in a printed translation. But ideally I would like for
them to watch me the whole time in performance, and not have their heads
lost in their translations. There’s a lot to be gained — hopefully
[laughs] — by watching my performance, if I’m doing a good job.
BD: You bring a
lot of expression to your face and to your hands?
I hope to, yes.
Do you adjust your technique at all for a small house or a large house?
DU: Not really.
It’s more like being able to take more risks in a smaller, more intimate
setting, than the risks I could take with an orchestra in a large house.
BD: Do you do all
of your work and all your preparation in the rehearsal, or do you leave a
little bit of spark for that night when you and the pianist are onstage?
I don’t think that one should assume that just because one might rehearse
a lot that there wouldn’t be any spark left. With good performers,
hopefully there’s always some kind of improvisation and spontaneity in a
performance. I enjoy most working with pianists that feel that freedom
themselves, and then give me that freedom to live in the moment.
* * *
BD: You’ve made
a number of recordings. Do you sing the same in the recording studio
as you do in the concert hall?
DU: I hope so,
because a recording should be listened to and thought of as another performance.
I get upset when people want recordings to be perfect, because I don’t think
that any performance is perfect. I don’t think that’s what people really
want. People want to be moved by music. They want to go home
with something, having learned something, having experienced something or
felt something that they didn’t feel before, and those same things should
come through on a recording. Sometimes that’s even harder to do on
a recording because you don’t have the chance to watch the artist, whether
it’s the singer or a pianist or other instrumentalist. That vision
adds a lot to a musical experience. You can say, “I enjoy most just
sitting back and closing my eyes.” I enjoy doing that myself sometimes,
but it means a lot to see how someone might move while they’re working, while
they’re playing. In any case, I hope that my recordings will have as
much conviction and love for the music as I hope my performances have.
Whenever I get upset because something’s not absolutely perfect on a recording
it takes me a while to get over it, but I usually convince myself that’s
not what’s most important.
BD: Are you basically pleased, though, with
the recordings that have come out thusfar?
I always want things to be better, so it’s difficult. It’s probably
difficult for anybody to watch themselves in a home movie or listen to themselves
on their tape recorders. It’s hard to listen to myself on a recording.
BD: Yet you’re
not the best judge of your performance, really. [Vis-à-vis
the recording shown at right, also see my interview with Hugh Wolff.]
DU: No, but in
a sense I’m going to be the hardest on my performance than anybody else,
harder than anyone I can think of. I’ll be much more judgmental.
BD: You’ve recorded
some American music. Are you a big proponent of American composers
and American songs?
DU: It’s important
to seek out or enjoy the music of my time, the music of my country.
I don’t think that it’s unusual; I don’t think it ought to be unusual.
It might be unusual, but I don’t think it ought to be unusual. I’m
not trying to wave this banner and make a point with it at all; it’s just
something I enjoy. I love singing in English. A lot happens when
I sing in English that probably doesn’t happen when I sing in other languages.
I learn a lot by singing in English because I realize I do even more with
the words. I create even more variety of sound and of images.
I’ve tried to bring this into my work in other languages, because I realized
a while ago that I had this stronger connection and stronger conviction about
music that I was singing in my own language.
BD: In each recital
do you try to include a group of American songs?
DU: No, not always.
I often do, and although I still continue to do kind of the hodgepodge type
of recital program, I’m more and more interested in bringing all these pieces
together in some sort of common denominator, having some sort of theme.
That’s a little more interesting, and there’s a lot of music that is sent
to me from composers. I love looking at new things, and often will
come across something that I want to include at some point, that I want to
perform. But I don’t make a point to save a little group for the American
BD: Do you have
any advice for someone who wants to write songs for your voice, or indeed,
DU: If you’re interested
in writing for a particular person, of course it would help to hear them
perform several times beforehand, and probably talk with them about what
might be a most comfortable range, or what poetry they might be interested
in if you want to include them in that aspect of your composition.
Periodically, while you’re writing the piece, it’s good to work with the
singer and make sure that they’re comfortable with it, or that they understand
and can conceive of what you have in mind while you’re writing.
* * *
BD: What advice
do you have for younger singers coming along, if any?
DU: My advice has
been, and still is, to just get out and sing in front of people as much as
possible, because even if it’s for a very small group of friends, or auditioning
for competition that maybe you might not think is worthwhile. Use any
opportunity to sing for people. I learned early on that I had to discover
who I was as a performer, and what was important to me, and I couldn’t really
do that all the time in the practice room. It changed when I got in
front of people. I became nervous, or I began worrying about what others
thought. It’s important to gain confidence in yourself, and to discover
what you’re all about as a musician.
BD: Do you like
being a wandering minstrel?
I’m not crazy about that aspect of this career! It makes for a very
interesting life for a while, anyway, all the traveling and going to a lot
of interesting cities and interesting countries. But I look forward
to settling down a little bit more in a few years. I want to continue
performing, but perhaps not with such a rigorous schedule as the one I have
BD: Are audiences
different from city to city, and country to country?
DU: Yes, sure.
In fact, sometimes I perform someplace where the presenters ask me to do
something in particular, because that’s what their audience is used to, or
not to do something else, because they’re not used to it. Sometimes
I adhere to those requests, and sometimes I don’t. I’ve been asked
to sing arias in song recitals, which I have refused to do. I have
real qualms with that whole thing, but we won’t get into that now.
BD: You don’t
like reducing the orchestra into the piano?
I’m not crazy about it, but that’s not the main problem. I just feel
like the song recital is having enough trouble in this country, in particular,
selling, and part of that problem is that we’ve got some really huge halls.
It’s mostly about money, as are most of the problems in this world, but we
have huge halls that presenters need to fill, so they try to bring in really
well-known opera singers, and the audiences that are attracted are opera
audiences, and they want to hear arias. They call it a song recital,
but half of the program is arias from operas, and I think this does real
damage to the art form of the song recital. Many, many, many of the
composers who wrote operas also wrote songs, so they certainly knew the difference
between the opera stage and the chamber hall, or chamber room
— someone’s living room, which many of these things were written
for. So I hope that we can save the recital in this country.
This problem does not exist very much in Europe, frankly.
BD: They have a
big tradition of it.
DU: Right, and
that’s another problem. We don’t have a tradition here of the song
recital in our own language like the Germans do or the French do. A
German singer will sing an entire program of German songs, or a French singer
an entire program of French songs. I frankly see no problem with singing
an entire program of American songs, but the people who come to song recitals
know about the German and French and English traditions, so they are used
to hearing a bit of this and that. That’s why there’s a big difference
here in this country.
BD: Is the song
recital really a viable medium here in America, as we head into the last
decade of this century?
DU: Perhaps not
in the shape that it’s in right now. There’s actually a competition
now in New York, the Chloë Owen Competition. The prize,
along with some money, is a recital in New York City, and you must prepare
an entire program of music from living composers with American citizenship.
That is the requirement, and it’s been a big hit. They’re in their
second year now, and the first year and the concert itself was all very well
received. Maybe there’ll be some changes, and maybe people will be
more and more interested in a full program of American music.
Chloë Owen (Soprano)
Born: December 21, 1918 - Raleigh, North Carolina, USA
Died: April 28, 2010 - New York City, New York, USA
The American soprano and music pedagogue, Chloë Owen was born into a
musical family. After early musical training and graduate work at the Peabody
Conservatory, Chloë arrived in New York City, where her Town Hall recital
in 1951 received critical acclaim. Under Columbia Artists Management, Chloë
Owen toured with Community Concerts nationally before embarking for Europe.
There, her study with Hans Hotter, Germaine Lubin, and Giuseppe Pais led
her to a warmly remembered opera, oratorio, concert and radio career of 19
years, almost exclusively European.
Owen’s extraordinary range and vocal prowess allowed her to perform roles
as diverse as the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte, Micaëla in
Carmen, and Elsa in Lohengrin. She sang in the Salzburg Festival
world premier of Irische Legende
by Werner Egk, conducted by George Szell. American and European critics alike
noted her artistry and passionate commitment to serving the intention of
both composer and librettist, with her range, flexibility, stage presence,
and exemplary diction. After successful carreer in Europe, Owen returned
to the USA, opened voice studios in New York and Boston, joining the music
faculty of Boston University. Her many song recitals in both cities over
the years garnered high critical praise.
Owen was noted for her master-classes which were among the first to incorporate
the Alexander technique in the art of singing. She taught privately in New
York City and Los Angeles, and was stage director for Pacific Opera Encore
A champion of 20th-century American composers, Owen enjoyed close professional
relationships with Ned Rorem,
Lee Hoiby and Thomas
Pasatieri, among others. Her passion for the American art song led her to
found the Chloë Owen American Art Song Vocal Competition sponsored for
several years by the National Association of Teachers of Singing, New York
City chapter (NATS-NYC).
-- Excerpted from the Bach Cantatas
BD: Is it just
exposure that is needed?
DU: In a way it’s
conditioning and exposure. It has a lot to do with what
people are used to, and what they think they’re going to like or not like.
BD: One last question.
Is singing fun?
DU: Oh, yes!
Fun? Fun is too light a word for it. Singing is usually incredibly
gratifying if I’m singing things I care about. And usually, if I’m
singing things I care about, and singing them well, singing also feels very
natural to me.
BD: I hope you
continue caring about it for a long time. Thank you for coming home
to Chicago once in a while.
DU: I’d like to
come back here more often! [Laughs]
BD: Thank you for
spending a little time with me today. I know it’s a busy schedule,
and I’m glad we were able to get together.
DU: Oh, I am, too.
This was very convenient.
© 1991 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on April 25, 1991.
Portions were broadcast on WNIB a few weeks later, and again in 1995 and
2000. This transcription was made in 2016, and posted on this website
at that time.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website,
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie
was with WNIB,
Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
until its final moment as a classical station in
February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared
in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he
now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as
well as on Contemporary
Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website for more information
about his work, including selected
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list of his guests. He would also like to call
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