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A New Era Dawns for Upshaw : A pillar of nice in a not-so-nice business, Dawn Upshaw has quietly become a Metropolitan Opera star through her honest devotion to the music and her pure soprano--not the theatrics you might expect. How did someone so normal make it so big?

November 06, 1994|Mark Swed | Mark Swed is a free-lance writer based in New York

NEW YORK — About two years ago, Dawn Upshaw suddenly became a celebrity. Already highly respected for singing the lighter Mozart roles, Schubert Lieder and the 20th-Century art song, as well as concert works and opera, the press was now comparing her to Callas and Madonna, and to the punk classical violinist, Nigel Kennedy. She even was called an unlikely pop star.

Yet nothing about Upshaw, the American soprano appearing this week with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, calls to mind Kennedy, Callas or Madonna. She is not unkempt, rebellious or, in any way, extravagant. She does not shock; she does not reinvent or flaunt herself. Onstage, she demonstrates little artifice or attitude.

Nothing about Upshaw's manner suggests that she is a star. Yet the morning I met Upshaw at a cafe near Lincoln Center, her picture happened to be where opera singers (or living pop singers, for that matter) rarely find themselves--on the front page of the New York Times.

Admittedly, the picture was there to announce a review inside of "Le Nozze di Figaro," which included the Metropolitan Opera debut of a much-hyped Welsh baritone, Bryn Terfel. It was with Terfel, the Figaro, that Upshaw, as Susanna, was pictured. But Upshaw is no small attraction herself at the Met these days (she's just better known), and her ovations were equal to his.

Upshaw's real fame, however, has been elsewhere achieved. Hers is the luminous soprano voice in the celebrated Nonesuch recording of Henryk Gorecki's Third Symphony, the super-serious, super-slow Polish symphony that has had remarkable appeal to both the pop and classical markets, and which has been a spectacular bestseller for the past two years. And now, thanks again to Nonesuch, Upshaw (who had previously released two Grammy-winning collections of 20th-Century works) seems to be winning yet more new crossover adherents with "I Wish It So," a music-theater disc of songs by Bernstein, Blitzstein, Sondheim and Weill, as well as an appearance on the latest Kronos Quartet recording, "Night Prayers," of mystical music from Eastern Europe.

"It's pretty weird, isn't it, when you think about it?" Upshaw asks, and then bursts into a laugh, when she considers going from "I Feel Pretty" to the eerie "Lacrymosa" by Uzbekistani composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky, on Kronos' disc; or from Mozart at the Met to the ambrosial, folk-based Canteloube "Songs of the Auvernge" and the modernist "Flowers and Fables" by Witold Lutoslawski, works that she will sing this week with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. "I, of course, consider myself to be extremely lucky that it's so varied."

She also says that it all feels perfectly normal. "It feels normal when I do 'Figaro,' which is one of the most perfectly brilliant pieces I know: it seems to have a life of its own. I'm just not conscious that now I'm going to sing classical music, or now I'm singing 19th- Century music. Maybe some people believe that I ought to be more conscious of the changes of style."

Occasionally Upshaw is, in fact, criticized for being too normal. Opera singers--and sopranos, in particular--are expected to be somewhat temperamental. But it is also that lack of pretense, the honest devotion to the music being sung or, in opera, the character being portrayed, along with the sheer reliability of her technique and the purity of sound, that has made Upshaw seem such a breath of fresh air in a not always nice or idealistic business.

And, in person, Upshaw seems pretty much as she does on stage. When she arrives no more than two minutes late for the interview (she had already called ahead and warned that she might get delayed in traffic), she is all apologies. She appears genuinely bemused and disbelieving that her picture is on the front page of the New York Times. Her manner and dress are so unpretentious that, in jeans and a sweater, she could be any Upper West Sider, so she attracts no stares of recognition when we later walk over to the Met.

None of this is to suggest, however, that Upshaw--who at 34 seems to be entering into her vocal prime and a new interpretive confidence--lacks character or personality. Indeed, the key to Upshaw's communicability seems to be the deep and essential way she internalizes what she sings, which then allows her a certain outer flexibility. And her commercial and artistic triumph in the Gorecki Third Symphony is, perhaps, a perfect, if curious, example of that.

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