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Classical Music

Raising her voice

After a battle with cancer, Dawn Upshaw has resumed her artistic quest - with a new intensity

(Tina Fineberg for The Boston Globe)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / May 3, 2009
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NEW YORK - Back in November in a dusty rehearsal studio a few floors above a hardware store on West 26th Street, the soprano Dawn Upshaw was pulling on some blue latex cleaning gloves and getting down to business. She grabbed hold of a bucket, dropped to her knees - and unleashed a torrent of tone.

The music was Gyorgy Kurtag's "Kafka Fragments," a song cycle for soprano and violin that renders Kafka's haunting prose in a wrenchingly dissonant modern musical language. The staging concept was that of director Peter Sellars, who chose to present this work as the secret confessions of an alienated housewife, framing this music of private apocalypse with the domestic rituals of everyday life. But the ability to fill both music and staging with clear emotional authenticity - and then transform it into a soul-rattling artistic experience - that was all Dawn Upshaw.

As the soprano jabbed at her chest, her voice pouring out with frightening intensity, and violinist Geoff Nuttall fired off crackling virtuoso accompaniment, Sellars leaned over to a visitor, motioned toward both musicians, and whispered proudly, "Can you believe I get to work with these [expletive] people?"

Upshaw, 48, is one of the most significant and dramatically moving singers before the public today, and right now she is unmistakably in her prime. Her voice has a pure-toned radiance and earthen warmth, a certain empathic timbre, and often a palpable undertow of yearning. Of course, the classical music world has many singers with magical voices, but Upshaw's rare gift as a performer is an ability to inhabit a work on the most profound levels, to live the music on stage rather than sing it at you. At the end of a strong Upshaw performance, one feels not dazzled by a glitter ing operatic star, but rather swept into the world of a fellow life-traveler.

In recent years, at a point when other vocalists might be settling into comfortable routines or limiting their artistic risks, Upshaw has become a restless searcher, abandoning safer career tracks in favor of a quest for meaningful collaborations with kindred spirits. Once known for her roles in Mozart operas on grand stages, she now sings virtually no traditional opera and often focuses on the works of living composers as varied as Kurtag, John Adams, Kaija Saariaho, John Harbison, and Osvaldo Golijov. At the same time, she has avoided being tagged as a specialist or being consigned to a new-music niche, surely because her performances of contemporary scores so often find the expressive core within complex modern languages, enabling a challenging work to speak far beyond the usual circle of connoisseurs.

This afternoon, Upshaw's communicative gifts will be on display as she and her longtime close collaborator, the pianist Gilbert Kalish, perform an eclectic Celebrity Series recital in Jordan Hall, with music by Debussy, Fauré, Messiaen, Ives, Bolcom, Golijov, and the local premiere of a new work by Michael Ward-Bergeman.

In person, Upshaw exudes a grounded sense of calm and not one iota of diva pretension. On a rainy morning a few weeks ago, when the soprano sat down for a meal at a cafe a few blocks north of Lincoln Center, the first thing she wanted to discuss was the miraculous parking spot she found right outside the restaurant. She also lavished praise on the cafe's grapefruit juice and on the music of Bjork ("I like all the risks she takes for the sake of expression"). Eventually, conversation turned to the weightier subject of her 2006 diagnosis and treatment for early-stage breast cancer. "It was very, very hard," she said simply. "I believe I am essentially free of it, but I also believe you can never really know."

Upshaw insists the diagnosis did not change anything fundamental about her approach to singing, though colleagues and close Upshaw-watchers observe a sharpening and deepening of what she was doing already. The Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed described Upshaw's first attempt at "Kafka Fragments" back in 2005 as a powerful and even "shattering" experience, but when the soprano returned to the piece earlier this season in Los Angeles, Swed described it as "one of the great musical and dramatic performances of our time."

When reflecting on the broader evolution of her career, Upshaw still cites her participation in a 1992 production of Messiaen's opera "Saint Francois d'Assise" at the Salzburg Festival as far more transformational than any battle with illness. It was the first time she worked with Sellars as a director, and with the conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, two artists with large roles in her life since then. "In a certain way I felt profoundly small, like when you stand in front of the Grand Canyon or something and you are awed by the moment," she said. "There was just something about doing that piece there in that space and with those two people - that was truly life-changing for me."

The experience led eventually to a realization that the conventional path for an operatic soprano was not necessarily for her, and that she could not make professional choices based on which orchestra or opera house would propel her one rung higher on a career ladder. When choosing projects over the last 10 years, she said, she has tried to let herself be guided solely by her own personal responses to a piece of music, or to her colleagues. A 2007 MacArthur Fellowship, the first one awarded to a classical vocalist, brought some external validation of her approach, but the path remains one of greater resistance.

"Sometimes it's scary because my calendar is not as filled up as far in advance as it used to be," she confessed, "But I like it better this way, since I'm responding to what or who is moving me." Sellars described this impulse as Upshaw's "determination not to have a career but a body of life work."

In the next few months, Upshaw's range of projects includes coaching young singers and composers at a Carnegie Hall professional training workshop; touring in Europe with an edgy New York-based chamber orchestra called The Knights; performing Saariaho's oratorio "La Passion de Simone" at the Bastille Opera; and returning to the Los Angeles Philharmonic during Gustavo Dudamel's first season, and to the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra where she serves as an Artist Partner, creating and performing programs. She has also been carving out more time for teaching, and now directs the vocal arts program at Bard College in New York.

Notably absent from the mix are any standard operatic engagements. Upshaw speaks of her opera days (300 appearances at the Met alone) like a phase of life spent living in another city, a time for which she has fond memories but no strong desire to repeat. As she explained it, her projects these days promise a sense of inspired freshness and forward motion which she no longer finds in reprising her old Mozart roles for a run of performances that might lock up weeks of the season.

As she sketched out her plans, Upshaw sounded supremely committed to making every decision count, and it quickly became clear that she is thinking not only about this season or next but about a broader existential arc, one that she addressed candidly and without hesitation. "Life can be short," she said simply. "I don't feel like I'm going to die anytime real soon, but I don't know, if the cancer were to come back, I just want to make sure that whatever I'm doing at the moment seems really useful." She added that even if her health remained perfect, "I have maybe 10 more years at the most during which I want to be performing a lot. Over those 10 years I may be singing a little bit less each year. That's not such a long time, so it might be a good idea to think about how I want to shape that time."

That presence of mind - a certain keen awareness of the fragility of fortune - in a singer only 48 years old and at the height of her artistic powers, becomes in itself an extremely potent force. It allows her to make bold choices in her creative life, but it also translates onto the stage in her singing and in her fundamental approach to the art of interpretation. Not surprisingly, that approach aspires to something far beyond entertaining a crowd with vocal splendor.

"With my students I talk a lot about being with the piece instead of projecting it," she said. "It's a wonderful thing to move away from just trying to give beautiful sound to an audience, and instead go in a completely different direction by trying to offer them a truth - one that may be beautiful but may also be very painful - yet in that way it connects with the world."

Sellars, one of her closest collaborators, put it succinctly: "Dawn has arrived at a place that life brings you to if you survive, and that's a kind of wisdom and insight and confidence and determination not to waste time." He continued, "She has amazing versatility and range and yet she's always Dawn. Most singers are chameleon and go into the jobs they are hired to do and do them as well as they can but it's not about them. With Dawn, she is filling the role with herself and that's what is thrilling. We go to continue our conversation with her."

Upshaw's commitment to revealing not just the sound of a piece but its expressive core has endeared her to the composers whose music she has championed. One is Golijov, whose opera "Ainadamar" was presented by Opera Boston last season with Upshaw reprising the lead role she created. Her portrayal of an aging actress swept up in the memories of the Spanish writer Federico Garcia Lorca, grew to vertiginous heights of intensity. In a different vein, Upshaw has also recorded Golijov's pan-Mediterranean song-cycle "Ayre," with a few tracks in which she dazzlingly transforms her voice, moving from a beatific calm to a wild grittiness.

For his part, Golijov compares Upshaw only half-playfully to a Zen master, and credits her with having had a profound impact on his work. "She has not only changed the way I write for voice - she has changed me as a composer," he said. "I wouldn't write anything the same way if I hadn't worked with her."

He continued, unknowingly echoing some of Upshaw's own language about her interpretive goals. "To me, she really [gets at] the truth of music - that's what it is. There is always the storytelling, the intelligence, the humanity, but ultimately there is truth - absolute truth - that does not deny sensuality and does not deny pleasure, but it encompasses a lot of things. Obviously she's greater than most of the new music specialists, but also I feel she has a quality that few great conventional sopranos have because they fall in love with their own voices. Dawn doesn't do that. She's always concerned with where the piece is going."

About a week after meeting in the New York cafe, Upshaw continued the conversation by phone from St. Paul, where she was on a high from the previous night's concert. She had performed for the first time with the young Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro, brought in at the last minute to lead the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. There was a rare connection between them, she said. Perhaps she had met yet another partner for future projects.

More generally, she observed, "things have been coming into focus in a different way. I feel more and more relaxed onstage - and like I'm able to focus more on what I'm doing with less distraction. I don't know for sure that it's due to the difficulties of the last few years. Sometimes I think it's just a maturity."

Yet none of it, she insisted, has been a fully conscious or willed process. "I have always felt like I'm following something larger that's evolving and changing shape and I am just a part of it. I'm just trying to remain open to whatever new doors are opening to me."

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

DAWN UPSHAW AND GILBERT KALISH perform a Celebrity Series recital this afternoon in Jordan Hall. 617-482-6661, www.celebrityseries.org