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Dawn Upshaw: The Diva Next Door

5 minute read
Charles Michener

It was a storybook debut. In 1988 the Metropolitan Opera needed a last-minute replacement for Kathleen Battle in L’Elisir d’Amore. It turned to an apprentice in its young-artists program named Dawn Upshaw. The audience cheered, and the critics raved about Upshaw’s charm and freshness; she seemed set for a predictable rise in the soubrette roles of grand opera. But Upshaw had ideas of her own. A few years earlier, one of her voice teachers, Jan DeGaetani, had told her to “seek your own path.” Upshaw took that advice. From Mozart to Stravinsky to show tunes, she sings a far wider range of music than is typical for an international star, yet at 34 she has risen faster and further than any other American singer of her generation.

From the moment of the Met triumph, Upshaw made it clear she intended to be a singer first, a diva second. She had performed in only a few operas and had barely established a recital career when she produced two astonishing albums. On one, released in 1989, she sang Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and compositions by Menotti, Stravinsky and John Harbison. The other, which came out two years later, is called The Girl with Orange Lips and is a collection of highly unusual contemporary pieces. Both won Grammys. Her next album, the Symphony No. 3 by Polish composer Henryk Gorecki, on which she was the soloist, became the most unexpected classical crossover hit of all time, landing on the British pop charts in 1993. Now Upshaw has another unlikely triumph on her hands: a new album called I Wish It So, which consists of mostly unfamiliar theater songs by Kurt Weill, Marc Blitzstein, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.

Few opera singers have ever seemed so convincing — and comfortable — in the Broadway idiom. Upshaw begins with four songs of yearning for love: the album’s title number, taken from Blitzstein’s 1959 Juno; There Won’t Be Trumpets, a song dropped from Sondheim’s short-lived 1964 show Anyone Can Whistle; What More Do I Need?, from an unproduced Sondheim musical of 1954, ! Saturday Night; and That’s Him, from Weill and Ogden Nash’s 1943 One Touch of Venus. Accompanied alternately by small ensembles and an orchestra, Upshaw stakes her claim as theater music’s most luminous ingenue since Barbara Cook — vulnerable yet resolute, urgently soaring yet as down-to-earth as the girl next door.

In the remainder of the album, Upshaw reveals that she is equally at home in less sentimental moods, skillfully handling, for example, the cynical extravagance of Bernstein’s Glitter and Be Gay (from Candide). Only in I Feel Pretty, from West Side Story, does she seem outside the song, pushing its innocence too hard. Otherwise, she conveys what the best singers have always strived for: the sense that a song springs directly from mysterious promptings within her.

Upshaw grew up in a suburb of Chicago. “Mom, who was a schoolteacher, played the piano,” she says, “and Dad, who was a minister, played the guitar. I started singing with them and my older sister when I was five — songs by Peter, Paul and Mary and other folk stuff.” Their group was called the Upshaw Family Singers. Her youthful idols were Barbra Streisand, Joni Mitchell and Aretha Franklin, and she dreamed of a career in musical theater. At Illinois Wesleyan University, though, she studied voice with her future father-in-law, David Nott, and he introduced her to classical song, starting with Schubert and Debussy. “His emphasis was on the words,” she says. “I don’t think my voice is all that beautiful. If I have any strength, it’s connecting the text and the music.” That is far too modest: Upshaw’s light but penetrating soprano has a purity that is instantly recognizable.

She has never been busier. This fall she sings Mozart at the Met (The Marriage of Figaro, Idomeneo) while preparing a January recital for Lincoln Center at which James Levine will accompany her. She has recently released two classical albums: songs by Aaron Copland (with baritone Thomas Hampson), and lieder by Schumann, Schubert, Wolf and Mozart, with texts by Goethe, accompanied by pianist Richard Goode. Due out in October is a record that shows yet another departure: music from Eastern Europe with the Kronos Quartet.

If Upshaw is driven, she doesn’t show it. She lives with her husband Michael, a musicologist, and their two children (she gave birth to a boy this summer) in a comfortable house near New York City. Sitting in her living room she might be any suburban woman discussing what it’s like to keep everything in balance. “I know I should be giving more thought to shaping my career,” she says. “But every morning still feels like a fresh start. My four-year-old daughter Sadie has the same spirit. The first thing she says when she gets up is ‘O.K., now can we talk about the day?’ “

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