Soprano Dawn Upshaw: She's a Survivor and Then Some

Jim Farber on May 23, 2011
Dawn Upshaw

The last time Dawn Upshaw appeared at the Ojai Music Festival was in June of 2006. It was one of those idyllic morning concerts outdoors under the trees with birds singing in accompaniment to Upshaw’s marvelous performance of Osvaldo Golijov’s song-cycle, Ayre. Everything seemed perfect. Then five months later Upshaw was diagnosed with first-stage breast cancer. She stopped performing and underwent surgery and chemotherapy.

Today Upshaw is a cancer survivor. And in joyous celebration of that fact, on June 4 (a week before the formal opening of the Ojai Music Festival to which Upshaw is music director) the renowned soprano will reprise that performance of Ayre to commemorate the opening of the newly transformed Libbey Bowl.

When I spoke with Upshaw the first thing I wanted to know was where she was calling from, since her active schedule of performing, teaching, and advising takes her all over the world.

I’m in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Are you performing?

Actually, I’m rehearsing. The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and I will be performing as part of “Spring for Music” at Carnegie Hall. It’s a festival of various orchestras that were chosen based on their programming. I’m singing a group of Bartók songs that were originally arranged by Bartók for voice and piano and have been arranged for chamber orchestra by Richard Tognetti of the Australian Chamber Orchestra. We’re also doing a piece by Maria Schneider.

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It sounds like the perfect lead-in to your upcoming performances at Ojai, since both Maria Schneider and the Australian Chamber Orchestra are going to be there.

When Tom Morris (director of the Ojai Music Festival) asked me to be the music director—that was about two years ago — I told him I wanted to organize my ideas and my choices based on my collaborators and relationships, more than on programming by pieces.

I knew I wanted to ask Peter Sellars (Upshaw’s long-time director). I knew I wanted to ask the Australian Chamber Orchestra (and its director, Tognetti). I wanted (pianist) Gil Kalish to be involved. And I have been crazy about Maria Scheider and her jazz orchestra for several years. I also wanted to find a way to involve the Bard College Conservatory and the graduate voice program I head there.

I think for many people, this will be their first exposure to Maria Schneider. (The Maria Schneider Orchestra performs a morning concert June 12 and that evening Upshaw will premiere Schneider’s song-cycle, Winter Morning Walks.)

Somebody else said that. I was surprised. I know Maria has never performed at the Ojai Festival, but I’m sure they’ve played on the West Coast.

One of the real highlights of this year’s festival, and later when you bring “Ojai North” to Berkeley (presented by Cal Performances), is George Crumb’s Civil War songbook (for voice and extended percussion), Winds of Destiny. Was it your idea to perform that piece?

Actually that was Peter Sellars’ idea. He had heard some of George’s song pieces; I think there are eight of them now. Peter even thought of asking George to compose one for us. But when I spoke to George — for the first time in my life— he said he didn’t have enough time to write something brand new. That’s when we chose The Winds of Destiny.

It seems an ideal choice since it coincides with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

Peter was especially interested in that cycle because it has such relevance. Its elements are so strong in the way they interweave these familiar songs from the Civil War that are about war and loss and pain, though some of the songs are more uplifting. It’s extraordinary music and I am so glad we are bringing it to Ojai and then to Berkeley.

Peter is updating the setting to the present, isn’t he, so the piece relates directly to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Peter, as he always does, is doing this piece in a way that makes it meaningful today. Parts of it may be shocking, but in the right way.

Tell me about the class you teach at Bard and the concert you’ve planned for the festival, “Voices: The Next Generation.”

It’s a new graduate program. I created the curriculum and hired most of the faculty and am the artistic director. It’s a gem of a program for a small number of singers — there are eight students in each class and it’s a two-year program

The concert (June 9) is going to be a musicale that includes all sorts of single songs by many different composers grouped together in various ways. Some of the groupings will be obvious, some show a little more freedom. The performance will feature six graduates from the last five years of graduating classes.

Will you be performing as well?

No. I will be speaking. I would say I will be hosting.

Why do you think the Ojai Music Festival is so special?

I think it has to do with the way people listen. I would call it very open and attentive listening. They’re also in a relaxed state. I certainly don’t always find that in a concert hall filled with people who are coming at the end of a busy day. Ojai is also a unique festival because it takes on a different personality every year, literally, with each new music director. That’s a fairly risky thing to do.