When her recording of Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs*, made her famous it could have been the beginning of a limited career for Dawn Upshaw. The beauty and purity of her voice on that recording would have tempted many singers to go in that direction, to the exclusion of any other. And there must have been some financial incentive to consider it. But Upshaw’s continuing career shows that she’s not that kind of artist. Subsequent work has shown that she is not interested in resting on past accomplishments or living within comfortable and profitable limits. When it comes to being a great musical artist, she doesn’t play the part, she’s the real thing.
This article, in what, as I write this, could be the last edition of the Boston Globe, shows that she is the opposite of the stereotype of a classical singer**. Reading her list of recent and upcoming activities makes you wonder how anyone in perfect health could do it. And Dawn Upshaw went through breast cancer treatment during part of it.
A great ‘new music’ singer is a pioneer, originating roles and giving first, and the even more important, subsequent performances of pieces. Composers hear what they can do and challenge the limits of those abilities. This short piece, capturing the astounding variety and courage of her work, makes me hope that someday, in her semi-retirement, she writes a book about what it is like to be the kind of professional singer she is. I think she could write one as good as Russell Sherman’s Piano Pieces, which I recommended a couple of years back as the best book I’ve ever read about what it’s like to play the piano. She’s an artist at the same level.
I’m restricted to a very slow computer this week or I’d go looking for musical examples to illustrate Upshaw’s work. This short biography gives some details about her extensive and distinguished work in more standard repertoire. Most 'new music' specialists are also accomplished performers of older music as well.
* The misunderstanding of this piece, often used as “relaxing” or “soothing” background music, is one of the strangest musical phenomena of the past twenty years. It’s a good indication of the ability of some people to hear but not listen and the dangers of accessibility to a composers’ intentions.
** Actually, most really accomplished classical singers don’t fit into that stereotype. Even the kind of career based in a limited range of repertoire and style is damned hard work. Once I got into a discussion which began with someone bragging that they’d memorized a moderately long poem. Someone pointed out that actors learn entire plays by heart all the time. The point that opera singers learn the text, in many languages, the music, generally pretty difficult music, the same kinds of blocking that actors do and top it off with wearing some really difficult costumes was as far as it could go. A really good singer is generally a great musician and an intelligent artist.