An Interview with Soprano Dawn Upshaw

by James Hanley Donelan

Dawn_Upshaw.jpgOn 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
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

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
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

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


CAMA presents soprano Dawn Upshaw, with pianist
Molly Morkoski, at the Lobero Theatre on Wednesday, February 14 at
8 p.m. Visit or call
963-0761 for tickets and more information.


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