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
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
-- 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 . . . . .
Do you have to be comfortable to sing?
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.
Yes. 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?
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
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.
thirty miles away?
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.
voice dictates which roles you will sing. Do you like the
characters that are imposed on your voice?
DU: 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!
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.
the right voice at the right place at the right time, and then you’ll
Yes. 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.
usually goes to the mezzo soprano.
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?
Possibly. 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
BD: Is it good
that we go beyond just the big three or four Mozarts, and explore some
of his lesser-known operas?
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.
it’s so static, perhaps it works better as a concert or as a recording?
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
BD: You are
also in a recording of Chérubin,
about a different Cherubino. Tell me about the Massenet
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
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
done a lot of singing at the Met, where they don’t use
supertitles. Have you sung elsewhere where they do use
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
BD: We just have
to get Andrew Porter
translations for everything!
Yes. 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.
the balance, then, between the music and the drama in opera?
DU: I sure
would like to see a little bit more of the drama onstage. It’s
better than it used to be.
mock horror] You mean, you don’t want to just stand and sing???
[Laughs] 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?
hopefully, all in a good balance.
BD: Well, who
should be the strong man — the conductor in the
pit, or the stage director?
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
BD: Or am I
just a naïve listener?
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 others.
BD: We were
talking earlier about various roles. How do you decide which
roles you’ll accept, and which roles you’ll turn down?
DU: I make a
decision about whether I think that they’re appropriate for me right
BD: What is
appropriate for you?
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?
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 outlandish?
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?
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
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
[Surprised] None at all???
DU: 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
BD: So you
can find a lot of drama even through a very short song?
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?
Sometimes. Mozart’s “Das
Veilchen,” that song about the little violet, is like a little
opera. It’s very dramatic!
you’re singing the songs, I assume you want the audience to be
following along the text?
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?
Yes. I hope to, yes.
Do you adjust your technique at all for a small house or a large house?
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
[Laughs] 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.
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
BD: Are you
basically pleased, though, with the recordings that have come out
Basically. 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.
you’re not the best judge of your performance, really.
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
recorded some American music. Are you a big proponent of American
composers and American songs?
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 folks.
BD: Do you
have any advice for someone who wants to write songs for your voice, or
indeed, any voice?
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.
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?
[Laughs] 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 now.
audiences different from city to city, and country to country?
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. [Laughs]
BD: You don’t
like reducing the orchestra into the piano?
Right. 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.
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?
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 Performances.
A champion of 20th-century American composers, Owen enjoyed close
professional relationships with Ned Rorem, David Diamond, 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
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?
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
at that time.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
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