A Cup of Tea with Dawn Upshaw

4. From Folk Music to a Career Emersion in New Music

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it’s interesting, when we were talking to Milton Babbitt across the street at Juilliard a couple of months ago, he was railing about the singers at Juilliard and how they never do new music and how the teachers tell them not to because they can’t get work. They’re on a career track. It’s like training to be an investment banker or a lawyer, there are certain kinds of law you’re not going to go into because there’s no work in it. But your career refutes that notion. Here you are, a celebrity singer in the classical music world who does mostly new music, and that’s what you’re known for.

DAWN UPSHAW: This came from wonderful teachers that I happened to have. My primary teacher in college, who happens now to be my father-in-law, was throwing new music at me as often as the traditional repertoire, the older repertoire. And I think it’s true that there aren’t very many teachers around like David [Nott] and it’s a shame that it’s so rare—and then I worked with Jan DeGaetani shortly after that…And not having grown up with classical music in my house, but with folk music and popular music and Broadway, I didn’t know what he was doing was so unusual. I grew up in my classical music training with a love and appreciation of all kinds of music and I do think it would do us all a world of good if more voice teachers embraced a wider range of repertoire.

FRANK J. OTERI: What got you excited about music initially? Any specific people or groups that you gravitated toward early on?

DAWN UPSHAW: My parents were quite involved in the neighborhood politics and the civil rights movement so it was Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger… That was the music that was not only played a lot in my house on recordings but we also sang as a family when I was very young and sang songs by those groups often.

FRANK J. OTERI: And when you decided to discover music on your own, separate and apart from your parents, what was the first thing you gravitated toward?

DAWN UPSHAW: I went into more popular music, Joni Mitchell who was really important to me and something that just popped in and popped out of my head, a lot of the groups like Blood, Sweat and Tears. And then I also became interested in Broadway music because, partly because of my parents involvement in a community theater group.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, so when you started recording Broadway music, that was almost sort of a homecoming in a way.

DAWN UPSHAW: Robert Hurwitz at Nonesuch knew a little bit about my history, he brought up the idea and I said, “That sounds like fun, why not?”

FRANK J. OTERI: Looking now in the year 2002 at shows like Show Boat or Carousel or The Most Happy Fella—they’re classics at this point. They’re the past. We’re as far away from them as people then were from Dvorak in the 20th century, and the fact that these shows get revived all the time shows they’ve become a new standard repertoire in some ways.

DAWN UPSHAW: It’s true. Yeah.

FRANK J. OTERI: In the Bravo documentary, you were performing one of the Ives songs with Richard Goode and I thought you brought a Broadway spirit to that music and it came alive in a way that few performances do. The Ives songs are great but a lot of times the delivery just isn’t. You made it come alive because of that vernacular background, which I think is in the Ives.

DAWN UPSHAW: There is all sorts of stuff in the Ives, of course, packed in with Americana, but certainly there is some of that.

FRANK J. OTERI: But that is our American tradition. Our American tradition does come out of this other tradition. This is a bit of a leap, but I even heard it in the new Jacob Druckman recording that you’re singing on. He was a jazz musician before he became a “concert” composer, whatever that means. And in so-called vernacular music, whether it’s Broadway music or folk music, there’d never be a question of does this line sing well with this text? It always does!

DAWN UPSHAW: Yes. (laughs) It starts there maybe. We’ve strayed a bit I think, maybe that’s an important point to try to get back to.