The Age (Melbourne, Australia)
January 31, 2009 Saturday
First Edition


Pioneer with a rainbow voice;
MUSIC

by Xenia Hanusiak


Dawn Upshaw's singular talent puts her at the leading edge of her art,
writes Xenia Hanusiak.

MY introduction to classical opera was an Armenian-American opera
singer called Cathy Berberian. She made her indelible mark in the '60s
and '70s. She was a trailblazer. The mezzo-soprano championed the
works of her time, from cabaret versions of Paul McCartney to the
avant-garde heroics of Luciano Berio, her one-time husband.

I would take myself at the age of 14 and sit in the front row of the
Adelaide Town Hall, bewitched. I wanted to be just like her. I thought
Berberian was what all opera singers were like. I was wrong.

Then along came Dawn Upshaw.

I first saw Upshaw perform at Wien Modern, an annual contemporary
music festival in Vienna. She sang the world premiere of a work called
Lonh by Kaija Saariaho, who was about to become a leading composer of
her generation. I started to understand that opera singers were very
different to what I had imagined - and certainly not like Upshaw or
Berberian.

So it came as no surprise when Upshaw recently said: "I don't see
myself as an opera singer." This from a singer whose repertoire
comprises the great Mozart roles and who has sung on the most
prestigious opera house stages - from Salzburg, Paris and Glyndebourne
to the Metropolitan Opera where she began her career in 1984 and has
since made nearly 300 appearances.

Berberian and Upshaw each possesses a distinctiveness that
destabilises the opera world. They are artists who have no choice but
to surrender to their individualism. As their careers unfold it is
clear that their paths are not the conveyor-belt of repeat
performances. It is a life of unearthing new composers, breathing new
interpretative dimensions into the old masters and forging new ground.

Upshaw is not a lone voice in the avant-garde universe, but
distinguishes herself by her ability to cross over to the popular
market. Her fan base expanded rapidly at the beginning of her career
in 1992 with the million-selling recording of Symphony No. 3 by Henryk
Gorecki. It is still in home music collections because of its
restorative and uplifting qualities.

As a child, she was a member of the Upshaw family singers. Singing
with parents who were members of the civil rights movement, Upshaw's
repertoire was Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary.

When she was seven, Upshaw came to understand the extraordinary power
of music in an experience that has guided her ever since.

The day after Martin Luther King was assassinated, the family singing
troupe was asked to perform at a local church.

"I could feel the pain of the adults in the room - the meaning of the
assassination. For the first time I understood the power of healing in
music," she says.

During her student years, Upshaw's musical lexicon expanded. "I don't
think I was born with the greatest voice. I was born with certain
tools. I went to music schools with a few people who had certainly
more impressive vocal sound than I did," she says.

Upshaw means more than the voice when she refers to "tools": she talks
about the moment when text meets notes on the page and to communicate
that intention becomes the only reason to stand on stage. In the opera
world, the reason to sing is strongly associated with creating a
generic sound for the art form. Upshaw's universe is more bound with
the traditions of her hero Joni Mitchell. She says if she had another
time, she would want to be a singer-songwriter. Upshaw also counts
inventive rock singer Bjork as an artist from whom opera singers could
learn. As part of the master's degree she teachers at Bard College
Conservatory of Music, aspiring classical singers learn to listen to
the nuances of Bjork and other popular artists of our time.

Upshaw is in Australia for a tour with the Australian Chamber
Orchestra. "I love the ACO," she says. She first heard the orchestra
during its debut performance in New York. She cried during its
performance of the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 9 with Stephen Hough.

"I was so moved - their joy was so uplifting," she says.

This impression led to a planned Australian tour in 2003, for which
Upshaw was scheduled to sing Bach arias. As all Upshaw fans are aware,
fate in the form of inflamed vocal cords meant that the tour was
cancelled after the first performance. Anyone who was in Melbourne's
Hamer Hall for that cancellation announcement witnessed the
disappointment.

ACO artistic director Richard Tognetti says Upshaw was horrified that
she had to cancel. But since then, the "good honest chick with a
silken voice that transcends technique", as he describes Upshaw, has
become a close musical collaborator on three overseas tours, while
Australia has been patiently waiting for a moment in her diary.

Upshaw will sing three songs by American composer Osvaldo Golijov, a
composer who grew up in an Eastern European Jewish household in
Argentina. His relationship with Upshaw has been particularly
close. Upshaw says that when she first heard Golijov's music "it was
like an epiphany". These songs are of loss, sadness and mourning with
influences of klezmer, flamenco, Galician and gypsy music.

According to Golijov, one of the strongest inspirations was "Dawn
Upshaw's rainbow of a voice ... I wanted to give her music so quietly
radiant that it would bring an echo of the single tear that Schubert
brings without warning in his voicing of a C Major chord."

Upshaw calls it "the saddest C Major song I know".

Dawn Upshaw sings with the ACO at the Arts Centre, Hamer Hall, on
Sunday February 1 at 2.30pm and February 2 at 8pm.

Bookings 1300136166.

Xenia Hanusiak is an opera singer. Later this year she will give
world-premiere performances of works by Chinese composer Zhang Xiaofu
at the Shanghai Music Festival, and Korean composer Cecilia Heejong
Kim at the Seoul International Dance Festival.