A Cup of Tea with Dawn Upshaw

6. Long Term Relationships with Composers

FRANK J. OTERI: The composers that you’ve been collaborating with closely in the past few years are all “something else” too. John Adams, for example, you know, what is his music? Yeah, certainly we could say he’s a classical composer, whatever classical means, but he wrote something that is in essence, music theater with Ceiling/Sky, and he did that wacky record Hoodoo Zephyr which was almost techno. I mean, he’s sort of all over the map and you know, his music is so informed by all of the things that your singing is informed by, so it’s just this wonderful thing that you’ve come together in El Niño. What is it like working with John?

DAWN UPSHAW: Well, that was really the first time that we had worked on a substantial project together. It was wonderful. First of all, he’s a great guy so it was a great pleasure to get to know him and to spend time with him and I was so moved by the piece. It really just blew me away. I was expecting a lot but it really blasted me. (laughs) So it was really an extraordinary experience. I just want to go back for a second because you were talking about how these different composers, at least whom I’ve been working with recently, also are hard to categorize, and I think that’s great. I would love for things to change and for people to stop categorizing. Maybe it’s come primarily and continues because of the whole marketing issue, but I think it’s so unfortunate in terms of the life of the music. I am so moved by El Niño; I don’t really care where it came from or what it’s pointing to so much or what it means musically in terms of its place in the world musically. All I know is that in a sense it changed my life. And that happens to me every once in a while and, you know, I’m very thankful that music can do that for me and does that for people, but that’s what’s most important and that’s what’s so rare.

FRANK J. OTERI: John Harbison is another composer whose music is not easy to describe. Gatsby is a wonderful work, one moment it’s modernistic, another moment it’s a 1920s Gershwin musical, other times its neoromantic. And sometimes it’s sort of all these things at the same time and then some!

DAWN UPSHAW: Yeah, of course, very, very, very different than John Adams. I’ve worked with John Harbison for a much longer time than at least at this point with John Adams.

FRANK J. OTERI: You did that wonderful Chorale Cantata.

DAWN UPSHAW: Oh, yes, with Peggy.

FRANK J. OTERI: A gorgeous, gorgeous piece.

DAWN UPSHAW: Having done so much of John Harbison’s music before, it was very interesting and gratifying to see where he was going to take all of this in The Great Gatsby.

FRANK J. OTERI: And it’s being mounted again.

DAWN UPSHAW: And we’re bringing it back, the Met brings it back this spring, in May.

FRANK J. OTERI: There’s another composer you’ve worked a lot with whose music is finally beginning to get attention in this country, Kaija Saariaho. You did this gorgeous, gorgeous piece of hers that is just your voice and electronics, Lonh.

DAWN UPSHAW: Her music is a whole other world, a completely different world. In fact, that ‘s what’s sort of so intriguing to me. I think with Kaija, I’m sort of more amazed and in awe of something that I don’t quite understand yet. In some cases I feel like I understand it completely and having done her opera L’amour de loin a couple times now and we’ll do it again in the future—this summer in Santa Fe—I feel like I’m getting closer, but all I know is when I first heard her music, it was like, Wow! What is that? That is a totally different voice, very individual sounding, you know. With a very strong kind of identity and that really drew me in. There are different ways that we get drawn in, you know. But hers was like a whole new sound world.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, I find it so interesting that when you get involved with a composer it becomes a long-term relationship. You’ve done at least three different pieces of Kaija’s now that I’m aware of…

DAWN UPSHAW: Yes.

FRANK J. OTERI: And quite a few of Harbison’s: the Mirabai Songs, the Chorale Cantata, the opera and…

DAWN UPSHAW: Simple Daylight, the song cycle.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, and so you have these long-term relationships with composers. So do you feel that having an ongoing role as an interpreter of these composers has shaped the subsequent works that they create? What do you feel your impact is as an interpreter on their work?

DAWN UPSHAW: Well, I would hope it would be of some benefit to them (laughs) to have a relationship where they can see the growth of, not just their music, but maybe how I react vocally to something. If they’re trying to learn about writing for singers… I know I certainly benefit from the experience because it’s just always more pleasing to, and gratifying to really dig into a subject or dig into the music. For instance, if I’m working on Debussy songs, the more Debussy I can listen to at the time, the better. I learn more and I will have a different kind of understanding about those particular songs. So certainly working with new music, assuming I like the music, the more I can get, the better.

FRANK J. OTERI: And you’re working now with Osvaldo Golijov?

DAWN UPSHAW: Yes. Yes.

FRANK J. OTERI: I heard a little snippet of something that you did with Kronos.

DAWN UPSHAW: It was probably Lúa Descolorida. Osvaldo Golijov is somebody who is writing music that just goes straight to my gut and my heart. I mean, I feel a connection, maybe like nothing else before. An immediate sort of connection with the energy and the sentiment and I think he’s incredible. I’m excited about all of the attention he’s getting.