Don't you just want to hit me sometimes? I know I do. It took me until just two weeks before the concert to take myself in hand and realise that, while she has never been my favourite soprano in the world, I really had very little excuse for not taking the opportunity to hear Dawn Upshaw live in concert. I mean, honestly: what was I thinking? Dawn and I have had all kinds of artistic differences over the years, but facts are facts: she's a hugely important singer with a massive following, beloved of many people whose opinions I respect, and she was singing in the city where I live.
There's a bit of heresy in the above, and I suppose you noticed it. Giving Dawn Upshaw anything but awestruck praise is not, in certain circles at least, the done thing. That's as may be, but it's been my misfortune (althought that's perhaps too strong a word) to hear her almost exclusively in repertoire for which few have ever claimed her to be ideal anyway. And reprehensible though it may be, I've just never made the effort to seek her out in the music she's made for, the music often quite literally made for her: the contemporary works composed specifically for her, and other bits of repertoire which, by all reports, may as well have been.
So you get the picture. I've never been a Dawn Upshaw fan — far from it — but to paraphrase Britten's comment about Verdi, I've always accepted this as more my failing than hers. But for all my personal bias, lurking in the background is always a willingness to be converted. I can quibble and moan all I like about this singer or that, but loving sopranos — not disliking them — is still what I'm best at. With that in mind, I shoved my silly objections into a corner and booked myself for her Valentine's Day appearance with the Australian Chamber Orchestra.
For all my excitement about the City Recital Hall's new pick-your-own-seat booking system, I didn't realise until I arrived that I'd placed myself right in the front row: far closer to the Feet Of than a non-devotee such as myself really deserved to be. But front row seats at Angel Place, while a little hard on the neck, aren't nearly as atrocious as those at the Concert Hall. It was an excellent place to be, with only the heads of the wind players out of view.
Since this is not a Proper Review, and since this is an opera blog, I hope you'll indulge or forgive me if I pass with indecent haste over the non-vocal portions of the evening. There others far better than I at praising such things, although I will say that after a fine but not astounding performance of Mozart's Symphony no. 29, the Sinfonia concertante was something else entirely and very nearly the musical highlight of the entire evening, due in no small part to the talents of principal violist Christopher Moore (whose haircut bears, shall we say, scant resemblance to the photo accompanying the above-linked bio). The newly commissioned piece, James Ledger's Restless Night was weird but enjoyable enough, its most notable feature in a sense being that it was composed to celebrate Richard Tognetti's twentieth anniversary with the ACO: a milestone difficult to credit given Tognetti's preturnaturally freshfaced appearance. I'm certain there's a portrait of him ageing rapidly in somebody's attic. (Either that, or the anonymously donated Guarneri was actually from Mephistopheles.)
And so, to Dawn. I'll save you the suspense. This is not a Road to Damascus story. It is, however, a story of softening, of a shift in feeling and of a genuine upswing in respect.
Watching Dawn Upshaw is not like watching your average singer. There is something unusually personable about her manner on stage, a sense that what she's engaged in is not so much performance as a sharing of music among friends — friends who include the orchestra, the audience and the singer herself. She moves with the music around her, whether she's singing or not. Her deep involvement with, and strong connection to, the whole artistic and performing process are obvious and immediately engaging. She is a serene, generous and seemingly wholly un-selfconscious presence — every tap of her toes, every hint of a tear, every radiant smile is genuine, with not a whiff of affectation.
That same sincerity is present in her singing, and I think perhaps it took the live experience to make me understand that. Her voice is what it is. She'll do anything with it, she'll take it to extremes if necessary, but what I suspect she'll never do is use it in a way that's artificial, in a way that's not true to her own sensibilities. And there, in recorded form, is perhaps the problem I've faced with Dawn over the years: her sensibilities and mine have not always aligned, but in her own, sweet way, she's never ever going to give way. Neither should she.
Her first item was Golijov's Three Songs for soprano and orchestra. This tour marks the Australian premiere of these songs, although they've been available on disc since 2007. Nevertheless, I would imagine they were unfamiliar to many in the audience. For me it's a different story: these songs are my old, old friends — just not in Dawn's voice. I met them several years ago, courtesy of the gorgeous New Zealand soprano Patricia Wright. I heard her sing them via radio broadcast and then later in live performance, and was privileged enough to be given a recording of that broadcast by the diva herself. I loved those songs and listened to them again and again. I'm sure you know how that kind of musical imprinting works. These songs were written for Dawn Upshaw and her performance of them is all that's radiant, true and beautiful, but the fact remains that that tiny corner of my heart marked "Golijov Three Songs" will always be the property of Patricia. However, it was marvellous to hear them live once again, and to be reminded of their particular magic. "How slow the wind" remains my favourite of the three, and Dawn's delivery of it was quite devastating.
She has a wonderful way of quietly but unshakeably taking possession of whatever she is singing. The Golijov songs seem hers automatically, by virtue of having been written for her, but the sense of ownership was at least as powerful in her next item, a selection of Bartok's Hungarian folksongs. I said the Sinfonia concertante was nearly my highlight of the evening. It was beaten out by Dawn's inspired performance of these varied, mesmerising and exquisite songs. There were translations printed, but my programme remained on the floor: you didn't need a word of Hungarian to grasp the spirit and emotions at play. The extraordinary malleability of her voice, and its capacity for such a wealth of colours, was especially evident here, and I understood more than ever before Golijov's oft-quoted comment about her "rainbow of a voice". From deep, melodious moans of agony to infectious Gypsy brilliance, she encompassed all the wide-ranging vocal and emotional demands of these songs with total and thrilling commitment.
She finished with a single song, according to Tognetti (who spoke between items) a sort of programmed encore: Richard Strauss' "Morgen". It's one of my favourite songs in all the world, sitting alongside Strauss' "Beim Schlafengehen" and "Allerseelen" as the piece of music most likely to turn me into a puddle of tears. It's also a song which I've heard sung by many of my most beloved singers, including live performances by both Yvonne Kenny and Cheryl Barker. In spirit, Dawn and this heavenly song are perfect for one another, and her performance of it was as moving and as beautiful as one could wish for. But I can't deny that I prefer a different voice for it, a voice more inherently Straussian, and yes, ideally, since it's a song I tend to take so personally, a voice with particular personal meaning for me: Cheryl, or Yvonne, or Barbara, or Lucia. Dawn's singing did not in any way diminish the perfection of the song, though, and I ended up as misty-eyed as she did — how could you not?
And that was that, though I was hoping for an encore and would gladly have listened to her for longer. I didn't emerge as a Brand New #1 Fan, I didn't buy a CD or queue to have it signed. But nor did I emerge feeling exactly as I did when I arrived. I've read praise of Dawn Upshaw for years and years, but it's only now, having shared in the gifts and beauty which have made such an impression on so many people for so long, that I can begin properly to understand what it's all about. She is not a singer I see myself going crazy for, but for the first time, I can see how and why a person might — and there's no doubt that I will cherish the memory of this performance for a long time to come.