by Rob Kendt
You just never know where soprano Dawn Upshaw is going to turn up: in Peter Sellars’ Salzburg production of Messaien’s Saint Francois d’Assise; on an album of showtunes by Vernon Duke; in the Metropolitan Opera’s world premiere of John Harbison’s opera of The Great Gatsby; on a record of Geothe settings by Schumann, Schubert and Wolf; in a concert encompassing new American art songs and a dance/vocal rendition of Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children (at UCLA’s Wadsworth in 1997); on the recording of a cantata by British pop songwriter Joe Jackson.
And that barely scratches the surface of a career that spans everything from premieres by John Adams, Osvaldo Golijov, and Kaija Saariaho to roles at the world’s major opera companies in works by composers as varied as Mozart, Gluck, and Janacek.
“I just try to be in the moment—I don’t have much of an overall vision,” said Upshaw in a recent interview. “Really, it’s a project by-project way of working.”
For all her eclecticism, there’s also a kind of taste-making imprimatur that Upshaw’s name brings with it. So when she appears on the bill touting an unsung composer, or alongside a hot new conductor, attention must be paid. In April she’ll perform at Royce Hall with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, a young ensemble under the direction of Richard Tognetti, who may be best known to American listeners as the composer of the score for Master and Commander (and the fellow who taught the film’s star, Russell Crowe, to simulate violin-playing on-screen).
“They’re an exciting group with very fresh energy,” Upshaw raved. “And Richard Tognetti is really a great spirit, an unusually gifted guy.”
The appearance is part of a national tour ending at Carnegie Hall, and it represents a sort of redress for one of the few unpleasant professional turns in Upshaw’s career: Last year she had to cancel a number of concerts due to inflamed vocal cords, and a series in Sydney with Tognetti’s band was the first casualty—and not the last.
“It was a strange fall,” she recalled of her months-long recovery. “It was odd not working for such a long time.”
She’s making up for the unplanned hiatus, it seems, with a dizzying schedule spanning the country and the repertoire. Indeed, what’s striking about her wide-ranging career is that as many colors as she adds to it, she doesn’t seem to subtract any: She’ll do pop and Broadway with the same commitment she brings to Berg or Canteloube, but she won’t stay on one side of the crossover divide—or indeed, in any one place for very long. She seems always to come back, both to pieces and places.
“My choice of projects is very much based on my relationships with my colleagues,” she said, referring to such close working partnerships as the ones she enjoys with the L.A. Philharmonic’s Esa-Pekka Salonen, with the Met’s James Levine, with conductor Kent Nagano, with pianist Richard Goode, with top opera directors and living composers. “It’s a great way to make choices now, based on what different relationships bring.”
It’s both an inspiration and something of a relief, she said.
“It’s not so much about being on my own, having to do it all alone,” she said of her path as it’s developed. “I’ve gotten to a point in my career where I have a better understanding of what I need to be fed, creatively, to get to a certain level of performance—one that goes beyond a well-prepared performance to live in this other realm. And that happens most easily when I’m working with people I have tremendous respect for, who I learn something from.”
There’s another element of return in her Royce Hall program with the Aussies: the chance to sing Bach. She’s recorded some of his cantatas, but said it’s something she doesn’t get to do often enough.
“My first love for Bach came from choral experiences in college,” she recalled. “I kind of get goosebumps from that music—in fact, I get more goosebumps singing in a choir than by myself.”
She’ll be singing solo arias from a number of cantatas at the UCLA concert. But it won’t be a totally Baroque show, or it wouldn’t be an Upshaw concert: She’ll also assay a number of Bartok’s Hungarian folk songs, in new orchestral arrangements by Tognetti.
Thinking about the Bach material and her love of collaboration, she recalled a particularly fertile time in her musical life, just after college, when she was a young singer in New York.
“I had a church job, and there were just eight of us,” she said. “Everybody was good at reading music, and the music director was doing all these amazing Renaissance pieces. That was really feeding me. I would love to get back to choral singing somehow.”
An internationally renowned diva going back to the chorus? If anyone could pull off such a counterintuitive career move, it would be the unpredictable Upshaw.