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Possibility rings in a soprano's voice

Defying convention and career-limiting labels, Dawn Upshaw pursues reinvention with a passion.

May 13, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. — 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."

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