Sunday, August 9, 2009

Breaking Dawn


I'm pretty sure that I will never own an iPod, in spite of the offer my Music 101 students made last year to buy me one if they all got A's (they didn't, and they didn't). The truth is that the technology doesn't attract me. The idea of walking around in the big world while cocooned in your own predetermined soundscape strikes me not only as personally isolating but even as potentially dangerous, and I'm sure it's not what Saint Paul had in mind when he set forth his injunction to be in the world but not of it.

On the other hand, I love the technology of radio. Quite the opposite of iPod-inspired isolation, radio gives the listener a thrilling, tenuous connection to a whole secret society of fellow-listeners. The ineffable sensation of being up late at night and turning on the radio to encounter an unexpectedly profound musical experience has given me some of the best moments of my life. It's been both profoundly comforting and wildly exciting to imagine a hidden community listening along with me in those dark hours; it's given me a delicious sense of shared struggle, of silent companionship -- the feeling that, as poet Elizabeth Bishop wrote, "Somebody loves us all." I remember waking in the middle of the night once in Brooklyn and switching on my lo-fi clock radio to hear the beautiful soprano-alto duet “Weg der Liebe II” from Brahms's Opus 20 duets, a piece I knew and loved well. That was twenty years ago, and it still stands out as one of the most beautiful moments of my life (and, if you want to know what beauty is, go here and download the piece for free right now in the version I heard that night, with soprano Judith Blegen, mezzo Frederica von Stade, and pianist Charles Wadsworth. And then, if you want to have a good cry, go here to read the translation). As George at the excellent music-and-culture blog The Big City writes: "There’s a lot of recordings I hear on the radio that I also own, but it’s special to hear them being broadcast, with that extra helping of serendipity and the feeling that you’re sharing your pleasures with others."

So it was with a thrill that I switched on the kitchen radio this morning to hear the opening chords of my favorite Schubert song -- and one that has deep personal meaning for me -- "Im Frühling," played by a pianist who masterfully evoked the music's tension between tender hope and melancholy resignation (the text is here). But when the voice entered, I was confused. I've heard many of the great singers who are currently active, and I'm quite skilled at recognizing voices, but this one sounded unfamiliar. I noticed that, although the singer was a soprano, she was singing the song in the low key, and it didn't sound quite right to me. There was a slight but telltale American accent in the delivery of the German, a distinctive conversational way with the text that I thought was a little overdone, and vibrato added only at the ends of phrases, as a nightclub singer would do. It took me until the third stanza to realize that the singer was Dawn Upshaw.

I'd always felt ambivalent about Ms. Upshaw's work. I had great admiration for her musicianship, her commitment to new composers and new works, and her ability to shape a unique, non-operatic career path as a classical singer. I had seen her début at the Met as Barbarina in Le Nozze di Figaro in my teens, and, as an aspiring singer, was impressed with her youth, the directness of her expression, and the sweetness of her voice. But I had always found her vocal resources somewhat limited, and had disliked her habit of compensating for their limitations by an attention to the text that bordered on mannerism. Stanislavski is reputed to have told a young actor: "You must love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art," and I had never been quite sure where Upshaw's true love lay.

And, frankly, I was jealous. Dawn Upshaw was having the career that I and a couple of my friends aspired to. We didn't really want to sing opera. We wanted to sing new music -- contemporary, untried, or forgotten repertoires -- but we'd been told that American singers couldn't have careers as recitalists, and that we'd have to make a name for ourselves in opera in order to be able to perform what we really wanted (I came to personal grief doing as I was told, but one friend was able to mostly circumvent the opera world and become well-known as a specialist in twentieth-century music).

I was up in arms when I heard Dawn sing George Crumb's iconic ensemble piece Ancient Voices of Children at her Carnegie Hall début in the late 1990s, for she didn't just sing; she also did some sort of interpretive dance during the instrumental interludes, which struck me as sacrilege. Then, in the last half of the recital, she sang folk songs with a microphone and some banjo pickers accompanying her, which struck me as smarmy.

Still, the fact was that the enigmatic Upshaw -- was she supremely talented or unjustly promoted? my friends and I could never quite decide -- was having the career we all wanted. A college friend went to a prominent music festival one summer, and when the new semester started, I wanted to know all about her experiences there. "Who were the guest teachers?" I asked her. "Oh . . . Dawn," she said airily, and I ground my teeth in envy at her first-name relationship with La Upshaw. Another friend, also a soprano, used letterhead from the law firm where she temped as a secretary to write to the Metropolitan Opera management, charging them with deception because she was convinced that they used a body mic for the slender-voiced Upshaw. Dawn seemed like a genuinely nice person, but we heard rumors about her ruthless ambition. "She lies about her age," someone whispered, as if everyone else in opera didn't. One friend, a pianist who was a great Upshaw admirer, was disappointed when he worked as the rehearsal pianist for an opera in which she was cast. She didn't really talk about anything except her kids, he said, and he concluded, therefore, that his idol was "a very boring lady."

But later, when I served as a graduate teaching assistant in the music department in one of my university's senior colleges, I was in the women's bathroom one day talking with my accompanist about an upcoming performance, when a stall door swung open, and out came . . . Dawn Upshaw. She was much taller than I'd imagined, and was dressed in a simple black dress with an old red cardigan half-buttoned over it. She came right over to us and asked me about my performance with unfeigned interest. It turned out she was adjudicating an audition for an opera training program that had rented one of my university's recital halls for the purpose. I managed to stay on my feet and stammer out the truth: that I had admired her and her work greatly, and for many years.

Not long after that, Upshaw was diagnosed with breast cancer, the disease that was soon to take her great colleague and friend Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, (you can see them together in a radiant performance by Upshaw of "Angels ever bright and fair" from Handel's Theodora, an oratorio about early Christian martyrs, here in an updated production directed by Peter Sellars), and she did a recital tour without bothering to cover the baldness that resulted from her chemotherapy treatment. She was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2007, the first singer to be so honored, and became the director of the vocal arts program at Bard College's new conservatory. After my son was born, I used to take him to a playground in a posh suburb north of New York City that was a quick train ride from where we lived in the Bronx. I knew that Dawn Upshaw lived there, and I always hoped I'd run into her again, but I never did.

The last time I saw Upshaw was exactly a year ago, when my dear friend Really Rosie and I went to see the New York premiere of La Passion de Simone, Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's oratorio about Simone Weil (Upshaw is shown as Simone above, with dance Michael Schumacher; the production was also directed by Sellars). The performance made me critical of Dawn for all the reasons I always had been, and made me love her for all the reasons that I always have.

The radio program I had flipped onto by chance this morning turned out to be a rebroadcast of a Saint Paul Sunday show from 2006, with Upshaw accompanied by the great American pianist Gilbert Kalish. You can listen to it here.

18 comments:

really rosie said...

Hi! Beautiful post.

I was thinking today about one of your posts last year about NYC in late summer with all its heat, smells, and nostalgia.

Pentimento said...

Hi, RR!

I love August in New York. I might write another post soon about August in Appalachia.

Betty Duffy said...

Of the Ipod: "I'm sure it's not what Saint Paul had in mind when he set forth his injunction to be in the world but not of it."

This line has been haunting me all day, darn it.

Betty Duffy said...

And Rosie, I loved your guest post. Do you have a blog hiding somewhere?

Pentimento said...

Do you have an iPod yourself, Betty? :)

Maybe it's time for Rosie to do another guest post here. She did tree last year, all excellent.

Pentimento said...

Er, that should read "she did three," not "tree."

Pentimento said...

(I was thinking with a New York accent.)

Betty Duffy said...

I do, indeed have an Ipod. Actually, my husband received one from his boss last year as a company benefit--make sense of that one. Anyway, what I don't have is a good radio or CD player except what's in my car. Hence the Ipod is where I listen to music, and just when I'm exercising, but I do find that it's at times an unhealthy substitution for good old silence.

Pentimento said...

U don't listen to music that much, actually. It usually requires too much of my attention. Good old silece has my vote most of the time, though I am loving right now The Nields' children's CD Rock All Day Rock All Night, and listen to it while I'm cooing a lot. It's 2 CDs in one. Rock All Night is my favorite - they sing folk and trad songs - really beautiful. I just got an acoustic guitar from my brother's best friend with the sole purpose of learning to accompany myself when I sing that sort of thing.

Pentimento said...

The first letter above should be "I," not "U." I'm queen of the typos today.

Otepoti said...

But you do coo a lot!

Obviously, the voice of a turtledove.

Otepoti said...

[waves in cyberspace.]

Hi, Rosie, Hope everything's well with you and beautiful L.

Pentimento said...

I'm going to call Rosie on the phone and ask her to write a guest post here. Any special topic requests, as long as they're loosely in the realm of faith, motherhood, and aesthetics? :)

Maclin said...

An oratorio about Simone Weil sounds fascinating. Is it good? I don't know that composer.

I had some similar moments with radio when I was a teenager, listening late at night. But now I hardly ever listen to the radio, because I have so much recorded music that I want to get to know better--whenever I have a chance to listen, I want to be able to choose the music. No doubt I do miss some happy accidents.

I have an iPod and love it, but I never walk around with it, except occasionally around the house. I've tried taking a walk with it once or twice and basically can't stand it--it puts one in a weird bubble, definitely in but not of, but in a bad way.

My main use for it is as a means of listening to music at home without bothering (or waking) anybody else. It's about to become a substitute for cds in my car, too (I spend an hour and a half commuting every day.)

Pentimento said...

George reviewed it here:

http://soundtime.wordpress.com/2008/08/15/
mozart-less/

He liked it somewhat better than I did, but it was definitely worth seeing.

Driving with an iPod . . . couldn't that be dangerous?

Pentimento said...

Really Rosie fans, good news! RR has agreed to write a guest post. She's promised that it will address certain issues pertinent to being an artist and a mother in New York City, a well-loved topic here. Hopefully it'll be up in a few days' time.

cnb said...

This was a really great post, Pentimento. I don't know Dawn Upshaw's work very well, but I treasure the recording she made singing the Angel in Messiaen's opera on St. Francis. It is so beautiful.

One thing I really like about your writing is that it reminds me that there are people, real people, with personalities and strengths and weaknesses, behind the music. It is not just "music", in the abstract, that I am hearing, but somebody trying to communicate something. I am prone to abstraction, so it is good to be reminded of this.

I have an iPod, and while I feel some of the same reservations as you about using it -- I cannot imagine a contemplative monk walking around with one, and that should tell me something -- I confess I do listen to it quite often. Without it, I would have no opportunity to listen to music at all, and that would be disheartening. I am not, however, one of those people who leave the earbuds in even while buying milk at the cornerstore. When I see that, I think the people who say the beastly little device is anti-social have a point.

Pentimento said...

Thanks, Craig. I really do admire Upshaw, though she's not my favorite singer of all time. That would be Dame Janet Baker. And also Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. As for guys, Bryn Terfel and Thomas Quasthoff. A lot of the angst that young opera singers in New York experienced at the Dawn phenomenon was of course jealousy. The fact is that our lives were hard, and it seemed as though Dawn hadn't had to pay many, if any, dues.

It seems to me that she has made artistic and professional choices, though, that show an integrity that's not often found in her profession. She could have been the cute soubrette-du-jour and cashed in (soubrettes are always popular with that important subcategory of opera fan, gay men, for complex reasons). But she did something quite different. I have heard from a mutual acquaintance that she's struggled with some difficult life experiences in addition to cancer, and I wish her health and hope she goes on to do more excellent work.