Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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10 Questions for...
Dawn Upshaw

July 19, 2011

Dawn Upshaw Photo: Brooke Irish/Ojai Festival

There are few living vocalists who’ve left as great a mark on contemporary music as Dawn Upshaw. Name a major new work of the last twenty years and there’s a fair chance Upshaw is one of the collaborators that brought it to life. She's got shelves full of Grammy awards and the first MacArthur Fellowship ever awarded to a vocal artist. She has certainly been a part of some of the most affecting musical experiences I’ve had as a listener from Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin, Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar , and John Adams’ El Nino to Messiaen’s angel and Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen. She’s an artist who has gone her own way on both the operatic and concert stages, and her commitment to the collaborators and issues that she cares about have yielded great music and great art. She’ll be making several appearances at this year’s Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival the week of July 25 singing Schumann and Golijov’s Ayre, which he composed specifically for her. Needless to say, when I got a chance to pose 10 questions to her for this little ol’ blog in advance of her time in Santa Fe, I jumped at it:

  1. You'll be making appearances at this summer's Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival where you'll be performing Osvlado Golijov's Ayre among other works by Schumann and Bach. What is the best thing about working with a living composer?

    It is a true privilege and honor to work side by side with the creator of a new piece—to try and understand and realize to the best of my ability what he or she is hoping to say through the music, and then to find my own true expression through that. It's also a joy, when I become very familiar with a composer's particular and unique musical "voice", to live in his or her musical world. In essence, it feels good and right to me that I keep my music-making vital and fresh in this way. It's what turns me on, and it's why I love singing.

  2. What piece of music, or role, would you most like to perform, but haven’t yet?

    I don't have such a "list".... I don't think like that. I am constantly responding to what is around me—to what I hear, to what is shared with me by my close colleagues, to wherever my interests lie at any given moment. I am quite content and gratified. I don't have a "wish-list".

  3. What piece of music, or role, would you never perform, even if you could?

    Again, I don't think like this, so I have no way to answer this question.

  4. Dawn Upshaw in Golijov's Ainadamar Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera

  5. What’s your favorite on-stage memory?

    Too many moments to list just one.... my favorite moments may last a second, they may last an hour, but they are always connected to very special experiences with particular colleagues that move and inspire me very deeply. Colleagues such as Peter Sellars, Gilbert Kalish, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Gerald Finley, ....the list is long!

  6. Some of your most memorable performances (and certainly some of my personal favorites) have been in collaboration with director Peter Sellars who has managed to convince you to perform in all sorts of atypical circumstances. What’s so special about your artistic collaborations with him?

    Actually, Peter doesn't ever have to "convince me" of anything! We know each other so well and respect each other to such a degree that "convincing" does not ever need to enter the process. Peter is one of the most generous directors I've ever worked with, and is most definitely the most musical director I've ever worked with. And he knows me so well—there's total trust between the two of us.

  7. What would you recommend for my summer reading list?

    Hmm... that's a little tricky since I don't know you! :) I guess I could tell you what I'm reading at the moment?: I am looking at the books of Atul Gawande, having first been so astonished and intrigued by his articles in The New Yorker; I am reading poetry by Lucia May; and I am just starting a new novel by Aimee Bender (The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake), whose short stories I have so enjoyed in the past.

  8. You’ve had music written for you by the world’s greatest living composers from John Adams to Kaija Saariaho. Which composer would you most like to have a new commission from whom you haven’t worked with before?

    Well, I don't know. Again, hard to answer that...and in fact, lately I tend to approach a composer if I'm wondering about a collaboration possibility. The most recent being the Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy (Nonesuch just recently released a CD of his music, which includes of a piece he wrote last Fall for me and his ensemble CRASH). He's writing 2 more pieces for me! I think he's really extraordinary, and I am wild about his music. Very exciting!

  9. What's the best thing about being a soprano?

    Will you be surprised if I say again (sorry!) that I don't think like this? That I have a bit of difficulty relating to the question? I actually don't identify at all with an idea of "being a soprano". I do identify with the idea of being a "musician". And in that case, I do love to find expression—personal expression, often times—through music. It is also, in a very big way, healing and comforting. And when I am moved by my colleagues, when I celebrate life, or even when it is outrage or pain that is expressed through music, ...well.... I often feel blessed.

  10. What's your current obsession?

    Trying to simplify my life.

  11. What can we look forward to next from Dawn Upshaw?

    ???? who knows! :)



Sounds like an unexpectedly tough interview. She is quite friendly and easy to talk to in person, I'm a little surprised she didn't give you more to work with.

Still, it was a valiant go at it. Thanks, Brian.
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