INTERVIEW / Give her regards to Broadway: Dawn Upshaw

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The Independent Culture
'Gorecki - The Concerts. Hear the best-selling album live.' That's how they're billing next week's London performances of Henryk Gorecki's Third Symphony, the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. The soprano Dawn Upshaw is bemused. It isn't quite the chart-topper she had once dreamt of. Time was when this 'country gal' from Nashville had her sights set on rather different horizons. In the beginning, there was Park Forest, Illinois: cosy middle America. Ma played piano and Pa the guitar: together they sang Peter, Paul and Mary songs. There wasn't too much classical music in the house, not unless you count the Swingle Singers. At high school she discovered Linda Ronstadt and Barbra Streisand, dreamed of Broadway and contemplated making a pot of gold by singing jingles. It didn't quite work out that way.

In her first year at the Manhattan School of Music, the strains of Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony turned her head. A new direction; a new Dawn. Training pushed up her voice from the alto she once sang in the school choir to pristine soprano; the 'Broadway belt' was put on hold. In 1984 she walked off with New York's Young Concert Artists Auditions and was accepted into the Metropolitan Opera's development programme. Four years later she enjoyed a spectacular success substituting for an indisposed Kathleen Battle as Adina in L'elisir d'amore. So much for history.

By the time her debut album arrived, she had too. On it she sang an audacious cocktail of Barber, Harbison, Menotti and Stravinsky. With it, she nailed her colours to the mast. It was a desert island kind of disc, which won her a Grammy and lots of new friends. People were captivated not only by the quality of this alert, super-bright voice - the way it surrendered to the sweet harmonies of Barber's Knoxville, the way it tickled the coloratura of Anne Truelove's aria from Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress - but by the whole vocal demeanour. How do you define a quality? Here is a voice with nothing to hide. You take everything Dawn Upshaw sings personally, because it is personal. Which partly explains the Gorecki phenomenon: these 'sorrowful songs' are soaring incantations. Upshaw sings them as though everything depends upon them: the top of the voice always sounds to be in the ascendant. A long way from the Broadway belt. Or is it?

History has a habit of repeating itself, and in New York, where we talked, Upshaw had recently set down an album celebrating the Broadway of Weill, Blitzstein, Bernstein and Sondheim. A sneak preview of one number - Sondheim's 'What More Do I Need?' - revealed an authentic Broadway chest sound, punchier, raspier, apparently no relation to Upshaw's 'operatic' voicings. Wrong. An auditory illusion. Right now Upshaw and her new vocal coach are working out on the old theory that there is a perfect place, a correct position for every note, regardless of what is being sung. Then comes the characterisation, the style.

'Believe me,' says Upshaw. 'These Broadway numbers - even the brassier ones - are definitely in the same place for me vocally. OK, so maybe you are supporting a little more from the bottom rather than the top, but essentially the placing of the voice is the same. Certainly, I had to work hard at the style: certain phrases would slip into sounding too operatic, some still do to me. But I think I knew instinctively how they should sound.

'Actually, I prefer not to analyse too much - that way you lose spontaneity. Besides, the sound doesn't come first, you don't choose the most appropriate or the most beautiful sound as a starting-point. The sound comes from the style and the style from the words. So in the case of these Broadway songs, it's the vernacular, it's almost like speaking. I'm moving more and more in that direction with everything I do now . . .'

Words, music, the critical connection between them, the lines of communication from printed page to audience - these are the things that matter to Upshaw. Recitals are still at the cutting-edge of her work. It's the intimacy, the immediacy of the ritual that excites her. She talks to her audiences - a quick resume of a song text, an introduction to an unpublished Debussy lullaby that she's just uncovered in the Library of Congress and would like to sing as an encore, the offer of cough sweets to inveterate coughers. One London critic called it 'the Pollyanna treatment'. Pollyanna was never so much fun. 'You are in control, the choices are yours, you can be diverse, build programmes in interesting ways. It's important to me that I leave my audience with more than just the sound of my voice.'

Most of her programming ideas grow initially out of texts that have inspired her: a connection, a theme will suggest itself. She doesn't programme conventional Lieder repertoire just because she feels it's expected. When she does, she'll put the imperative back into Schumann's Liederkreis; through her you might revisit familiar Schubert without feeling that you've been there before. She isn't shy of colour, drama, the vitalising ingredients. And she never reminds you of anybody - for better or worse, the interpretative insights are entirely her own.

'I try to approach every piece as I would a first performance,' she says. 'For me, it very often is. Let's face it, there are new pieces to be found in every period. Anyway, why should I spend less time probing and questioning on something written before 1900 than I would a brand-new piece? What's the difference?'

There have always been plenty of brand-new pieces in Upshaw's life. The word has been out for some time that she's receptive, with an innocent ear and an inquiring mind. Scores arrive by the sackful. She insists that she's not 'an easy lay' for the pieces no one else will perform, that she can say no, and she admits that there have been disappointments. 'Of course. There's more bad than good music in any period, but you need to travel that road and hit upon those pieces in order to know when you find something that works for you, touches you. Sometimes, you grow into a piece after an initial disappointment. That's part of the process.'

The process might also begin with a call from Robert Hurwitz, her executive producer at Elektra / Nonesuch records. Hurwitz has been the prime motivator behind all her discs for the label: that audacious first album, an even more audacious second (also a Grammy winner) entitled The Girl with the Orange Lips - a 'voyage of the senses' through a hothouse of Ravel, Delage, De Falla, Earle Kim and Stravinsky (a kind of 'Upshaw in the Sky with Diamonds'). He brought her the Gorecki Symphony: 'I was overwhelmed that something could communicate so fiercely through such simplicity . . . I think its success has a lot to do with timing. People need that kind of hopeful, healing piece right now . . .' And there's more where these came from: collaborations with the Kronos Quartet, with the pianist-guru Richard Goode.

And opera? She is much in demand but remains ambivalent and cautious. 'I love the challenge of opera but worry that I have so much less control . . . When everything comes together, it's enriching, a gift . . .' She cites working with Peter Sellars on Messiaen's St Francois d'Assise in Salzburg and Paris. 'But I've never understood the concept of my Pamina or my Susanna; I'm not interested in touting roles around the world's stages except to explore and develop them in new and interesting ways.'

And that's always a gamble. In a couple of weeks she joins the temporarily homeless Glyndebourne company for London concert performances of Berlioz's Beatrice et Benedict; next year - the first season in the new theatre - she steps into David Hockney's sets for a revival of The Rake's Progress. A new production of Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites is imminent at the Met. The repertoire speaks for itself.

Only one thing is certain about Dawn Upshaw's future: it will be on her terms - and all of them musical. It worries her that musical training seems more preoccupied these days with correctness than the pursuit of individuality. But isn't that an innate quality? Something that cannot be taught? 'Sure, but it can be encouraged. You can excite a young musician into believing that they have something special of their own to say, you can give them the confidence to take risks . . . I sure hope so - I intend to try.'

Gorecki - The Concerts: Mon / Tue 7.30 Barbican Hall, Silk St, London EC2 (071-638 8891); all seats pounds 15

(Photograph omitted)

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