Dawn Upshaw

The celebrated singer of opera and musical theatre knows how to use the tools for doing her job

Dawn Upshaw
Dawn Upshaw (Photo courtesy of Dario Acosta)

I may not have hit college during the Worn-Out LP era, but I can relate to the fad. A few select CDs received their fair share of wear and tear during my own undergrad years, among them I Wish It So by renowned soprano Dawn Upshaw. The album features tributes to the work of composers Leonard Bernstein, Marc Blitzstein, and Kurt Weill, but it was the third track – "What More Do I Need?" from Stephen Sondheim's little-known musical Saturday Night – that was set to repeat on my car stereo most often. For me, this particular rendition exemplifies the highly effervescent, clear, and character-driven quality of Upshaw's voice – a quality that Austin audiences will have the chance to enjoy live this weekend. Take note, lovers of masterfully made music: Dawn Upshaw performs at Bates Recital Hall, Sunday, April 7.

"It is a really interesting program," the four-time Grammy winner says of her upcoming Austin engagement. "It came from a program that [pianist Stephen Prutsman] does on his own, a solo piano evening called Bach and Forth. He alternates Bach piano music with all sorts of different styles, periods, and parts of the world, [playing] two pieces together that have something in common, whether a motive or a mood – anything that he feels makes a connection. Our program, though it's not exactly that same template, does come with the idea of doing single songs from different styles, languages, and composers, and putting them next to each other in an unusual order – grouped together based on the scheme of the poetry more than anything else. It was really fun to put together."

Upshaw's performance isn't the only item on her Austin slate; as an artist in residence at the University of Texas, she'll also be leading a master class with Butler School of Music students. Her teaching philosophy? "My job is really to try to understand where someone is at any given time," she explains. "I will speak to what I think they most need in that moment so that what I might bring to the [singers] and to the audience present will be in response to the individual needs of the singers." Might Upshaw find herself tweaking a Southern dialect or two with some of her local protégés? That's unlikely, she says. "If you're serious about your work as a singer, you're dealing with language all the time. That's your job. But along with that, it's something, I think, kind of instinctual that comes to a singer from a certain region when you start elongating your vowels that you automatically lose some of your accent."

Talking with Upshaw served as a vivid reminder of what first drew me so intently to I Wish It So: her ability, as a performer so lauded for her interpretation of Mozart's operatic roles, to give voice to contemporary musical theatre composers like Sondheim with equal finesse. Perhaps the secret to her success across multiple styles is that Upshaw doesn't feel she approaches them all that differently. "For the process of singing, I need to know how to use the tools for making music, and there are many different tools that one uses in order to sing a song. Understanding style or differentiating [one style from another] has everything to do with how you use your tools differently."

Upshaw knows the subtlety of working with those tools to create wondrous interpretations that lie far beyond the toolbox itself. She's a master craftsperson who will soon share her talents as both pedagogue and performer with Austin audiences.

What more do we need?

Dawn Upshaw performs Sunday, April 7, 7pm, at Bates Recital Hall, 2406 Robert Dedman Dr., UT campus. For more information, call 471-1444 or visit www.texasperformingarts.org.

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Dawn Upshaw, Texas Performing Arts

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