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The Dartmouth
May 27, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Upshaw talks about her approach to making music

"Hey, we should perform together," Dawn Upshaw, the premiere American soprano, recalled thinking after she was reacquainted with the pianist Stephen Prutsman, whom she met at Tanglewood as a college student.

That seemed an obvious thought to Upshaw, who with such an easy turn of phrase often reveals her casual, transparent beauty -- which translates into her remarkable voice.

For this Friday's show in Spaulding Auditorium, Upshaw and Prutsman knew they wanted to choose a program that was half classical and half modern. The idea for the second, modern half of the program started broadly, with American musical theatre, but narrowed to songs written in the '60s, the songs that informed the artists' college days.

Prutsman arranged the piano accompaniment in the second half of the show, which includes the music of Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Laura Nyro and the Mamas and the Papas.

"We had so much fun looking back to that music, listening to all sorts of things that molded and shaped our personalities," Upshaw said in her smooth voice, clearly in love with both the collaboration inherent in her profession and with every musical genre possible.

Dawn Upshaw is the music world's modern muse. Her voice, an extension of herself, inspires; yet she gives her own poetic interpretations back to the composer, creating a working relationship. That ability is why so many pieces have been designed with her in mind, like John Adams' "El Nio," Kaija Saariaho's first opera, "L'Amour de Loin," her frequent works with Osvaldo Golijov and, most familiar to the American public, John Harbison's new opera, "The Great Gatsby." The role of Daisy was designed for Upshaw.

"No, my voice does not ring of money," she laughed in reference to Daisy.

Relationships with composers are of utmost importance to Upshaw, whose humility could be the very canvas that inspires them.

It is "a tremendous privilege to work," she said, "to be involved in music of my own time, to try to understand how a particular composer works and thinks and creates. Sometimes it is a back-and-forth process -- the necessity of getting feedback while writing -- but the composer has to send something to get feedback," she recounts in her easy manner.

Upshaw's vocal prowess is revealed only through the names of the composers who work with her and the places she performs.

"Luckily I am doing what I want to do," she said. "I've never felt I've had to do something for someone else. What I value most, though, are these new projects, which seem to be a mixture in themselves of different genres, something new and old and fresh. They do not make things too easy, but they are something we can all connect to."

Upshaw is a star, but her drive is to translate the poetry of the words into song. Her love has always been the music, shown to her through different teachers and her own questing mind. During Upshaw's undergraduate years, her teacher David Nott exposed her to all types and styles of music. He showed her different performance techniques but never made her choose a period or a composer to focus on.

Another inspiration, Jan Dagiatonni, brought her into contemporary music. Upshaw realized that her teacher "singing contemporary music brought as much or more variety to this sound world that is possible to create." In graduate school, Ellen Faull encouraged Upshaw to refine her voice and develop her technique.

This education may have inspired the common epithet that Dawn Upshaw is "an American singer." But she remarked, "I don't like to think too much about what it means to be an American singer."

Yet her childhood and her education have influenced her eclectic taste.

"I am sure because we grow up with so many kinds of music on the radio and television, it is all fused together here," she said. "And especially because I did not grow up with classical music in my head, I was not hearing that sound. My singing is more inclusive of other styles than just strictly classical training."

Upshaw chooses her music from all over the globe.

"My interest has grown every year the music grows," she said. "I'm particularly interested now in folk music, the different patterns and gestures -- expressing of one's feelings and emotions in stories and gestures."

Her interests are indicative of Upshaw's role as an interpreter of song. Though the composer actually translates the poetry she is to sing, she said, "It is important for me to be connected to the poem as much as the music. "

To achieve this connection, she reads extensively for her parts -- either the music, the poetry or the novel. At the moment she is preparing for a large piece for soprano and violin by Gyorgy Kurtag, based on Kafka fragments.

It is Upshaw's immersion in her work on all sides -- the musical, the poetic and the compassionate -- that brings her voice to its height, but what happens on stage cannot be traced.

With different languages, Upshaw acknowledges that there ought to be not so much a different way of producing a sound but a different use of consonants, to create an understanding of the words without knowing the meaning. The words themselves have a power and a poetry, she said.

"I don't know if anybody teaches that," she said. "It's a subtle thing, but I think it is something one picks up subconsciously as one gets to know the language and the culture better. It is part of the whole process and the part of the study that is not talked about in specific terms."

It is this lack of specificity that Upshaw has perfected.

"The fusion of word and sound creates something so vivid," she mused.