Tonhalle-Orchester Zurich

This article is from 2009.

Tonhalle-Orchester Zurich

American soprano is mobbed, but not in the mob

Dawn Upshaw is up to her elbows in batter. She’s in the kitchen of her New York home, making pancakes with her son. It’s a very domestic scene, but then the American soprano couldn’t be further from the diva-ish stereotype. She’s just returned from the Aspen Music Festival and soon she’ll pack her bags for the Edinburgh International Festival where she’s appearing with the Tonhalle-Orchester Zurich and long-term collaborator, conductor David Zinman. The programme includes Folksongs by Berio, Mahler’s Symphony No.4 and Brahms’ Variations on a theme by Haydn.

‘I haven’t sung Mahler for a while, though I used to do it often,’ she says. ‘One of my favourite things about doing it is listening to the first movement. There’s such redemption, joy and peace in it. I find it rejuvenating to perform.’

While many vocalists make choices based on which orchestra or opera house will do the most to advance their career, Upshaw has always been guided by her personal response to the music and the other artists involved. It’s a method that has led to some unexpected, often exciting choices. ‘I’m always looking for like-minded souls to work with. As I gather more experience, I realise that my work is very much affected by the collaborators I work with so I’m quite picky about what I take on.’

This approach has taken Upshaw from the great Mozart roles (Pamina, Ilia, Susanna, Despina) to modern works by Stravinsky, Poulenc, and Messiaen, and from Paris, Salzburg and Glyndebourne to the Metropolitan Opera, where she has made 300 appearances. She has featured on more than 50 recordings and won numerous awards, including four Grammy Awards and a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship known as a ‘genius grant’.

Upshaw chats thoughtfully and freely about her career and the choices she’s made since her 2006 diagnosis and successful treatment for early-stage breast cancer. Though she doesn’t believe it has altered her approach, critics have pointed to a greater emotional complexity in her performances since.

‘Work is an ongoing journey for me. It’s a real gift to have this kind of work where you are constantly evolving.’

Usher Hall, 473 2000, 27 Aug, 8pm, £10–£39.

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