One of America’s most celebrated singers and a past recipient of the prestigious MacArthur “genius” grant, soprano Dawn Upshaw has pursued an illustrious and uncompromising path. Associated early on with contemporary music, Upshaw would establish herself not only as a vocalist whose range spans from early music to modern works and musical-theater fare, but also a fearless artist wholly committed to collaborating with and championing living composers. Her career, onstage and on recordings, has earned some of the music world’s highest awards and accolades.
A devoted teacher, Upshaw has helped to shape and guide singers of current and future generations as the founding director of the Graduate Vocal Arts program at Bard College Conservatory in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. Established in 2005, the unique master’s degree program was designed and implemented by Upshaw, mindful of the opportunities and challenges singers have to negotiate in this fast-evolving century.
This June, Upshaw will step down from her position and move on to new challenges; Bard has appointed the distinguished opera singer Stephanie Blythe to assume the directorship in July. Before then, though, Upshaw will bring students from her program to National Sawdust on April 14 to present “First Songs,” two concerts of newly composed vocal works. Reached by telephone, Upshaw spoke about the state of education today, what she created, and what might come next.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: You’ve created a noteworthy and successful one-of-a-kind program at Bard College Conservatory. What made you decide that it was time to step down and move on?
DAWN UPSHAW: I have loved working with the students, and I look forward to continuing to work with young musicians. I find it invigorating and inspiring, so I have no plans whatsoever of stopping doing that kind of work. The program at Bard has developed quite a lot since its inception 14 years ago. I really have enjoyed building the curriculum, and think that we have a very unique program. I just wanted to do more, and it seemed that I perhaps wasn’t going to be able to take it in quite the direction that I wanted to, and that it was time for someone else to take that directorship. It is my understanding that they don’t have any plans to change the curriculum—I think they see Stephanie [Blythe] as somebody who would continue with a lot of the same vision. And I think she will do a wonderful job.
In terms of your continuing activities involving education, I presume that your connection to Tanglewood will continue?
Yes, and I have been approached by a few schools. But I’m wanting to take a little time, actually, this fall. I have some performance work, but I want to try not to fill in my time for a few months. And I want to take those few months to really imagine what I would like to do most in my work with young musicians. I’m hoping to find some kind of new relationship—maybe not a full-time one, which is what Bard has been. I just don’t know yet, frankly, so I’m just going to take a little bit of time and brainstorm.
Thinking back to the time when you were a student yourself, what are the most significant ways that a education has changed between then and now?
I’m not sure that I have a perspective on a general sweep of change in education in the country, but I know that there have been many important aspects of needed change, in my own mind, which is why it was a wonderful opportunity to create a program from scratch. And those things I have found to be really important – I think that there is a larger world of opportunity for entrepreneurship, for creating and curating one’s own programs and repertoire and performances.
And that’s been a big part of the program here: a really intensive course, for instance, in professional development, where the students go out in small groups and they create their own concerts, from the ground up. So they find a venue and they create a program, usually with a theme – a purpose, kind of – and they do all their own publicity, and can see through this experience how much influence they can have, actually, even at their young age, to bring meaningful musical experiences to audiences, and to really take initiative, and realizing they have the power, really, to put something of meaning together for themselves.
At the same time, hopefully I’m shedding light on new music that’s being written. That seems important to share.
I specifically intended to ask you about entrepreneurship, because it does seem as if there’s a great deal of emphasis on that capacity in schools and conservatories now. Do you think that’s come about as a result of a lack of opportunities at conventional performing-arts institutions, or is it more a response to a proliferation of alternative opportunities and different paths now available to artists?
I think more the latter. There was such a tradition of steps needed in order to get work, right? It was, I’m going to go to school and I’m going to study, I’m going to hone my craft of singing, and hopefully with the help of a manager I will be able to get the jobs I want to get. And certainly with opera that’s the case; most people can’t build an opera company on their own. But I think there was this sense for such a long time that it was a bit of a passive process, that you had to wait till someone was interested in your work before you could get work.
I do think that that’s changing. With social media, with the Internet, there are other ways of communicating with people. It’s not that management is not needed; I think that that’s still an important part of the whole scene for a lot of people. But I think there’s a greater awareness of greater possibilities, rather than just kind of going with the flow of the typical journey of a young artist.
It does seem as if there are more opportunities available for the artists who have the sort of fortitude and insight to envision something completely alternative—one obvious example being Julia Bullock and what she’s created for herself. If anybody has emulated the sort of groundbreaking path that you yourself established, she’s the one.
Well, she’s got her own beautiful new path. I’m so excited for her, and I’m so excited that others are listening and paying attention.
And speaking of building an opera company from the ground up, I’ve just remembered that she’s also a founding member of AMOC [American Modern Opera Company], the new multidisciplinary collective with Anthony Roth Costanzo, Matthew Aucoin, Zack Winokur, and a number of others.
And actually, this idea of collectives is fairly new. I know there have been others, especially with living composers working in collectives. But we also had a student group at Bard that came out of the course I was speaking of, that created their own collective after their coursework project performance was over. They are performing in various places and doing very well with it.
So she came out of our program, and she has flown with all sorts of things: with Resonant Bodies, and she sings herself, and she actually now teaches our professional development course.
What a great fit.
Yeah. This has been really exhilarating, I have to say, and exciting to see the next generation do their thing.
You are continuing to turn attention towards the music of our time, and towards contemporary composers. But I wonder even how that has shifted as we’ve entered an age in which people who are not from the standard sort of boilerplate Euro-classical background are entering the field and demanding to be heard. How do you encourage your students to listen?
I’m sure that in one sense, we’re barely at the tip of this iceberg of new awareness that you’re speaking of, of all different music from all different kinds of backgrounds. I think that what I can do… I have two years in this program, and they need to get all kinds of guidance and instruction: voice lessons, language, diction, movement, acting. The curriculum is built around these four core seminars; these are the centerpieces, and they’re each different topics.
This “First Songs” project really comes out of one of the core seminars. I’m always learning from the younger generation, and that means I’m learning a lot from younger composers. So I work with Shawn Jaeger – do you know his music? It’s really spectacular—I’ve done a few projects with Shawn. He has been our coordinator for “First Songs,” and though he’s not on the grounds here all the time, he’s very much involved in it. He sends me and my colleague, Kayo Iwama, lists of composers to listen to. I ended up picking all of the pieces for the “First Songs” performances, so it’s a real range of things I knew of and things Shawn put forth.
The goal this year was to bring in as many different styles… always it’s a goal to bring in as many different styles, and also to stretch the students, so that they singing in a style or trying to use their voices expressively in a way that they hadn’t done before. And we have many of the composers come in as guests to speak to the students about their music. So the students are exposed not only to different styles, but also to a conversation about the process of writing, and the process for these composers of how they came to be composers—why are they expressing themselves in the world this way?
Given the kinds of things you want to impart as an educator, what do you expect out of a student who comes to you?
I expect and hope for a good imagination, and also training of a certain level, because we need to start from a certain place, and all be on the same page pretty much, so we can share. What I most hope is that they learn a great deal about themselves, so that they can be adventuresome and risk-taking and playful, imaginative. That they’re not trying to repeat back something that someone’s taught them or follow instructions so much. They need to have an understanding of language skills, and also an understanding of the power and the art of good, expressive diction—a very, very important part of singing.
But beyond that: to know where their strengths are. To learn scary things about themselves. That’s really hard: to learn what things you need to work on, and to know yourself well enough so that you can take a lot of steps on your own that nobody can take but you.
Flipping the coin now, do you have a strong sense of what a student can and should be able to expect from a teacher?
Oh… that’s a question I haven’t really thought about before. I mean, I’ve thought about it in terms of what expectations are at this age of one’s teacher—and I sometimes want to flip that on its head, because there are some very young 21-, 22-year-olds that come in and there are much older 21-, 22-year-olds, and they have different needs and expectations of their faculty. I would hope that they’re looking for guidance and support more than answers.
Sure. Having someone who will support you on your journey while you ask those questions, instead of saying, “Those are the wrong questions, and why haven’t you learned these Schubert songs?”
Right. Or, “You’re not singing this right.” I’m not interested in that kind of “you need to sing it this way or it’s incorrect” or something.
There are fewer black-and-white questions and answers in the world than there are opportunities to explore and blaze your own trail with the right sort of guidance. So, bringing it all back home, what might we expect to see and hear in Sunday’s concerts?
Hopefully, music that will be fresh and will resonate in some way with the audience, leaving them thinking about something new as they leave the hall—but also, maybe, an awareness of a process that’s gone on for these young singers and pianists, and there are a few string players, too. An appreciation for the process they’re in and their goals, an appreciation for the work—I think it would be great if that was also something exhibited and experienced by the audience.
I went to a concert the other night by the Australian Chamber Orchestra. It was a great program. They played as a group the Grosse Fuge of Beethoven. And just like that, I left knowing what work had gone into putting together such a riveting performance, and how exhausting that is to play as a group. I realize that I’m a professional musician, and so I’m listening a little differently, probably, than someone in the audience that’s not a professional musician. But still, there is this group experience that we have as audience members with the people on stage, in terms of what they are offering and the hard work.
So I guess I would hope that, along with hearing a lot of new musical ideas and new composers, that the people who come on Sunday also find some pleasure in the goodness of the experience, and of sharing it with everybody else in the room. There’s nothing like going to a concert and really being aware of every moment in that room, that day, with those people that you don’t know at all.
Dawn Upshaw and singers from the Bard College Conservatory Graduate Vocal Arts program performs at National Sawdust on April 14 at 4 and 7pm. 17; nationalsawdust.org