Opera + Classical Music Features

Interview: Dawn Upshaw

Dawn Upshaw

Dawn Upshaw
(photo: Dario Acosta)

Though she is used to giving world premieres almost at the drop of a hat, Dawn Upshaw has one particular project that has become something of a baby to her. It is the work of Gyrgy Kurtg, and, more specifically, his Kafka Fragments, a collection of 40 songs and fragments designed to be performed by soprano and violin.

Upshaw has an ace up her sleeve, too, in the form of images from the not inconsiderable presence of Peter Sellars, with whom she has worked on several occasions. For a woman famed for the intensity of her live performances, however, she has a relaxed disposition as we talk to her from her New York apartment.

“I’m in my kitchen, getting ready to rehearse Kafka again with Geoff Nuttall,” she says, surprisingly breezy for 9am. Clearly she has enjoyed spending the week with the violinist, but has their interpretation of the fragments changed since they first encountered them? “Oh, definitely,” she says emphatically. “Everything I’ve ever worked on changes over time. Musical expression always changes, and our live experiences colour how we hear something and how we understand it, how it speaks through us. Being a singer and working with text, I find there is no simple truth in life! It changes and continues to change depending on my own experiences.”

She has yet to talk to the composer in person about the pair’s interpretation of his work, but the wish remains. “I’ve secretly hoped that maybe someday we might have a version to share with him, either in a recording or a video. I haven’t been near him long enough though.”

And what of Sellars’ images; has it been difficult getting used to the projections behind her? “Actually, I found that fine. Peter and I have done many projects together, so I have a clear idea of how he likes to work, and he has an idea of my strengths and weaknesses. Having said that, my connection here was even more immediate than any project we’ve done. I think it’s one of his best bodies of work, in the way it presents the material. I don’t believe the piece needs enhancement, but it does present a perspective that makes really strong connections to all sorts of people.”

This much she has discovered from those attending the concerts. “The response has been very strong. Even when a good friend of Kurtg was present on our previous tour, someone who is very familiar with the piece, they felt they hadn’t seen it done more intensely.”

She goes on to talk of the depth of feeling in the music. “It is some of the most detailed and specific in terms of expression, and that’s what really blows me away. It’s made up of 40 little fragments, most of them really brief, with different ideas and expressions. Musically it’s so distinct, and the gestures are so clear and direct, yet they are also very different to one another. It blows me away that someone could do that, and could make them so very moving. They hit a core of emotion for me, and I think you know someone is a real master when they can accomplish that.”

There is a relative lack of bass, due to the scoring, but that does not seem to present a problem to either Nuttall or Upshaw. “I guess over time I am less aware of that, because for both the voice and the violin the range is just so huge. I feel that though it’s one work, and one violin, there is a whole world of colours represented in the music.”

And what of the fiendish technical demands, which require the soprano to whisper and shout as well as sing? She responds modestly. “The most difficult work takes place at the beginning, with learning the notes. As Geoff and I have commented, now that we are on our fourth run of performances we couldn’t possibly have the notes any other way. I don’t suggest that I’m perfection at all, but that was the greatest challenge, getting the notes together. When you then connect body movement to sound, there is something extra added to the memory. The music helps me to remember the staging, and the other way around. Now, each time we return to the music, it is a case of trying to get further and further inside it.”

Upshaw has a continuously rolling schedule of new works. “I’ve just finished a piece with Donnacha Dennehy, called That The Night Come…, and I just loved the experience. Then I have the Ojai Festival, where I am the music director, and my next piece will be by Maria Schneider. Actually, that’s not true, as the next one is with the Argentinian composer Pablo Ortiz, who lives and works in the U.S. now. That will be with piano.” She thrives on new works. “I really enjoy working with composers, finding music that says something to me, and I hopefully will bring something to it. I look forward to working on new pieces. I’m still interested of course in existing pieces old and new, but I am eager and have a passion to perform.”

Taken in context, Upshaw’s work rate is all the more extraordinary when taking her recent fight against breast cancer into consideration. She remains, however, perfectly calm about the experience. “I am feeling good, thank you for asking,” she says politely, before immediately finding the positive side of her experience. “Whether it’s cancer or a sudden loss of a loved one, I think music is a healing presence, certainly in my life, and that has become more obvious to me in the course of this experience. That’s true for a lot of people, that we seek comfort and healing through music.”

What hasn’t changed is Upshaw’s preference not to plan too far ahead. “I am such a day to day type of person, responding to things in the moment. I learned that much about myself quite a while ago, for better or worse, responding to what was going on in a given time, and leaving doors open. I don’t think it’s a particularly positive or negative thing, probably neither, that’s the way I work best.”

Dawn Upshaw sings Kafka Fragments by Gyrgy Kurtg at the Barbican Hall on 11 November 2010 at 20.00.

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