An Interview with Soprano Dawn Upshaw
by James Hanley Donelan
On Wednesday, February 14, one of the world’s great sopranos, Dawn Upshaw, will grace the stage of the Lobero, along with pianist Molly Morkoski. Upshaw began her career at the Metropolitan Opera in 1984, and soon became known for her warm, rich tone and her ability to take on an enormous range of challenging roles in operas by Mozart, Stravinsky, and Poulenc, among many others. More recently, she has collaborated with composers on new operas, including John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby, Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin, and Osvaldo Golijov’s chamber opera Ainadamar, which she performed at the Ojai Music Festival last June. I recently spoke with Upshaw in anticipation of her Valentine’s Day concert.
The first time I heard you sing, you were Susanna in Mozart’s Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera. It was about 12 years ago, when Bryn Terfel made his debut, and critics considered that performance one of best in the work’s history. You and Terfel even made the front page of the New York Times. After being so well-known for singing Mozart, you seem to have moved on to other things. What has been your experience of the direction of your career? I remember that performance — it was wonderful, really a special night. Bryn did a great job, and it was a privilege being onstage with him. There’s really nothing like singing Mozart, and I hope to sing that role again some time. But everybody — well, not absolutely everybody, but most singers — evolves. Of course, you have roles you repeat, and I loved singing Susanna, but I also love working with composers of new operas; it’s a way to make a lasting contribution to music.
Could you tell me more about your latest collaboration with Osvaldo Golijov, Ainadamar? It’s a wonderful opera, a very beautiful piece, but an extremely challenging role for me. I play Margarita Xirgu, a well-known Spanish actress who spent her life in exile in Latin America after her friend, the poet Federico García Lorca, was murdered. She never leaves the stage for the whole piece — it’s a one-act opera. We see her as she’s dying, and she’s finally accepting Lorca’s death more than 30 years later. Then we see her when she was young, and we see her let go of Lorca in her imagination. It’s a dramatically and musically rich experience, with a lot to think about, and tremendous sentiment and emotion.
You seem to have a gift for portraying people of different ages. We were all amazed at your ability to portray a child in Mussorgsky’s Nursery the last time you were in Santa Barbara. I love those songs — I hope no one minds that I’ll be performing them again at the upcoming show. You see, this is my first tour since undergoing chemotherapy. [Upshaw was diagnosed with breast cancer and has made a successful recovery.] I wasn’t sure how strong I would be, and I wanted to sing those works that were most familiar and most comfortable for me. So, I made a list of all the songs I really liked, where I felt a strong connection to the text, and narrowed it down from there. I wanted to make sure that no matter what, I would give the audience a good performance.
We’re all glad you’re feeling better. Could you tell us some more about why these are your favorites? Well, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, the sections of the program all have some kind of thematic link — there’s a whole section, for instance, where all the songs have something to do with the moon, and there’s a whole range of styles and composers. There’s a song Osvaldo Golijov wrote for me called “Lúa descolorida,” and some by Schumann, Rachmaninoff, and Alban Berg. I finish up with some Kurt Weill and three pieces from William Bolcom’s Cabaret Songs — they’re great.
CAMA presents soprano Dawn Upshaw, with pianist Molly Morkoski, at the Lobero Theatre on Wednesday, February 14 at 8 p.m. Visit lobero.com or call 963-0761 for tickets and more information.