Truth and Beauty

She may be the world’s best soprano. But Dawn Upshaw just wants music with “no baloney.”

Actually, Dawn Upshaw—the superlative soprano, winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant, and artistic partner with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra—had a different word in mind when she told me her preferred kind of music is that with “no baloney.” But, she said, “I didn’t think you could print it.”

Fair enough.

Upshaw is a rare creature—and not just because of her warm but crystalline voice, which she’s used to interpret everything from folk songs to opera to John Adams’s El Nino, an oratorio quickly becoming a perennial holiday favorite, if not quite at the level of The Messiah. “I think it’s rather unusual to have a piece written in the last 10 years that’s received as many performances,” Upshaw told me. “I hope John Adams is pleased with himself.”

No doubt. And Upshaw deserves to be, as well. But largely she’s down to earth, candid in her search for music that speaks honestly. In fact, she’s dogged in that quest, not about to rest on her laurels by performing showpieces over and over again.

“I’m always interested in trying to express something of beauty and truth that’s going to resonate with people,” she says, “and there are many ways that that’s done. Whether we’re talking about music or art or dance. I’m less interested these days in repeating things for myself from the repertoire. I’m more interested in seeking out the new, not only for audiences but especially for me. I like finding new forms of expression. It’s really interesting to me to work with composers and to find new ideas that I can express in a real and honest way.”

In February, Upshaw and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra will premiere a new work by the young composer Gabriela Frank. “I first met Gabi at one of these workshops at Carnegie Hall that I’ve been doing,” Upshaw says, “where singers are matched with composers and we’re working on different phases of writing music. And at the end you end up having a piece written for you. The first one I did was with [composer] John Harbison and in our group was Gabi Frank. And then I see her every once in a while, so her name was certainly on a short list of when the SPCO and I were discussing possibilities of a commission a couple years ago.”

Here’s Upshaw leading a master course (rather patiently):


And if you just want to see her perform, here she is singing “The Rake’s Progress” by Stravinsky:


Read more about Upshaw’s life and work at “The Voice Returns.”