A Cup of Tea with Dawn Upshaw

3. The Balancing Act of Interpretation

FRANK J. OTERI: Charles Laughton was a great performer, and his telephone book routine came up in a conversation I had with Michael Tilson Thomas where he was saying that one of the tricks of a great performer is to be able to make anything sound good. You sometimes can make something magical that otherwise might not be.    

DAWN UPSHAW: You mean create magic that’s not there, so it’s kind of like selling the piece. I think there’s like this line that I don’t want to cross anyway if I can help it. I don’t want to feel like I have to sell something. I think hopefully that the piece sends me some place and I can share that or open up that door to the audience. And maybe it’s opening a door to a different room than another singer would with this very same piece, but, the times that I’ve had to do something that I didn’t feel strongly about, something I didn’t think was a good piece—that’s the kind of hard work that I try to stay away from. (laughs)

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, you said something very interesting in the Bravo documentary. When you get into a role, it takes over your entire personality and you lose a sense of who you are, you’re no longer yourself. Yet at the same time, later in the documentary, you were talking about how it’s important for interpreters to personalize the repertory they’re performing and sort of take it over and have it be their personality. A wonderful contradiction! But it’s interesting because it’s that combination of submission and control that is the great balancing act of interpretation.

DAWN UPSHAW: I think that if something really is working well with me, inside of me, there’s an instinctual or subconscious takeover, in a sense, so it all begins with a piece, the best experiences begin with a piece that not only retouches something I already know, but teaches me something new about that or about something else. And so once that happens, I think, yes, with each interpreter there are different ways of adding on a strength, hopefully strengths rather than weaknesses. But there’s also something that when it really clicks is subconscious and you know, kind of takes over.

FRANK J. OTERI: So this question of getting into a role, whether it’s an operatic role which has the extra layer of drama and acting or a vocal recital, or even an art song, is it harder to recreate a role that you’ve already heard someone else do, or is it easier to create it out of nothingness, as it were.

DAWN UPSHAW: I don’t know that it’s really harder. I think I enjoy creating things from a clean slate, probably a little bit more, especially if we’re talking about traditional opera, sometimes there’s a whole lot to be learned by watching and listening to what’s been done for years and years and years and years and years. Other times I feel that that stamp, those decisions and those opinions that have been set for so long end up being a hindrance for repeating it and trying to bring something new to it.

FRANK J. OTERI: That is the quagmire of classical music at the beginning of the 21st century. What can 21st century performers bring to this music that not only itself is old, in some cases now two or three centuries old, but has a performance history that’s been preserved on recordings for over a century. You know, you do the St. Matthew Passion—that’s what? 1721—but you’re not only dealing with 1721, you’re dealing with every single performance of it that happened since then, and especially all of the past century’s recordings of it. How do you compete against that history? Is the goal to transcend what’s been done before? How do you make it new?

DAWN UPSHAW: I can’t really think about all of that when I’m working because it just needs to feel true and real to me at the moment. And, of course, all my training comes into the picture and my experiences of hearing those recordings. But ultimately I have to throw that out the window while I’m finding whatever truth there is for me in that moment. I think that that’s the only way we can go forward and I think that’s why it’s so important with new music to really try to appreciate what is unique about any given piece and what the musical language tells us about life and things that we can relate to today.