A Cup of Tea with Dawn Upshaw

1. Singing in American English vs. Other Languages

FRANK J. OTERI: When your Vernon Duke album came out, I was so excited because I think there’s something about your performance that really captures the spirit of both the music and the language in the lyrics. In these songs, there’s a consummate marriage of music and text, which is something I feel so-called classical composers and performers can learn a great deal from. Many composers rarely achieve this kind of marriage, and it even more rarely comes across in performances. A lot of vocal music and a lot of singing just isn’t English-centric. So, it begs the question: How is English different to sing than French, German, or Italian?

DAWN UPSHAW: Of course, you’re speaking to someone whose first language is English—only language really. It’s not like I’m fluent in anything else. And I think the way that one spends time on consonants or expresses the connotation of the word through the actual pronunciation of the word becomes much more intense when you’re really connected to the language. So I think that what might appear to be an advantage in this situation, being the English language, is actually just an advantage of it being a language that’s so close to me. I do think that sometimes in the “classical” music training for singers we don’t spend enough time with students making sure that along with sound and clear diction, that the way an m is pronounced or any consonant really, that that can be just as expressive as any interpretive decisions, consciously or unconsciously, you’ve made. So I do feel that sometimes that gets a little lost in the training and you end up with a more antiseptic kind of diction and pronunciation.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, I always find it strange that there are still some American singers who sing English as if it were Italian, you know, rolling the r’s which sounds so strange when you hear English sung that way.

DAWN UPSHAW: I guess there are still teachers that teach that. I think there are instructors that realize that American English doesn’t have a rolled r. (laughs) That just comes from the idea, I think, that English from across the waters is the correct English, which I totally disagree with, but I really enjoy the American r. I think that it’s gratifying and it’s expressive and it can be beautiful.

FRANK J. OTERI: So we’re essentially saying in some ways that English English is a different language or at least a different dialect than American English.

DAWN UPSHAW: Sure, sure. Totally different accent. Or they’ll say we have the accent.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right. Well, in terms of the music that comes out of this, when you’re singing works by British composers versus singing works by American composers or American composers who set British poetry or vice versa, does that come into play at all?

DAWN UPSHAW: I think it should come into play… It gets a little more complicated in a situation like an American composer setting an English text rather than an American text. And I don’t think it has to be pronounced in the English way rather than American, but I think that it’s worth considering. So, I think it’s just a matter of choice, but I don’t think that it should be disregarded nor do I think that there should be some sort of set rule that you always stick by.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it gets really mixed up in the 20th century, especially with a work like The Rake’s Progress, which you’ve done. I think it’s an American work, Stravinsky was a naturalized U.S. citizen by the time he wrote it, but English was his third if not fourth language, and the text was by a British poet, Auden. So how do you handle that? Is it an American work? What is it?

DAWN UPSHAW: Well, I think it can be thought of musically as American and still pronounced with an English accent. Well, I’ve done it different ways, but certainly when I recorded it, that was everyone’s wish—to try to have pure English pronunciation.

FRANK J. OTERI: You said that English is your only language. When you’re singing things in other languages, how do you get into those heads?

DAWN UPSHAW: When I say it’s my only language, I’m just trying to be as realistic as possible. Of course, I spend a lot of time working on trying to get that same connection in other languages. I realize I’ll never get there completely. I’ll never sing German and feel as comfortable as when I’m singing English. I guess I sing in French more than any other of the foreign languages, and then German and, you know, I’ve done Polish. I have to find someone with who can help me on both understanding every bit and the sound, trying to be as expressive as possible with the sound.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, do you feel that there are certain techniques that are dictated by the language or are they…how much of it is coming from the language? You’ve sung Górecki‘s Third Symphony and the Polish language is so different from the English language in so many different ways—you know, you think of these Slavonic languages of having a very different sound, almost a sound of Slavonic singing that’s very, very different from Western European singing.

DAWN UPSHAW: Actually, I don’t know why but I feel almost more connected, in a sense, to some of those sounds than I do with French. French took me a long time to get a hold of. I feel like I have a good understanding of it now, but there was something about the subtleties. And Polish, I mean, it’s all just right there.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s a bunch of consonants, just like English.

DAWN UPSHAW: German, you have to really bite into and go all the way. There’s no subtlety, you know, there’s nothing that you want to hide behind at all. It’s very much right here.

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