St. Paul, Minn. — Soprano Dawn Upshaw and composer Donnacha Dennehy joined Stephen Smith on Feb. 7, 2012, to discuss their collaboration based on the poetry of Yeats. Upshaw is one of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra's artistic partners, a MacArthur Genius Grant winner and a world-renowned singer.
Stephen Smith: This is Bright Ideas, fresh thoughts on big issues from Minnesota Public Radio News. I'm Stephen Smith.
Each month, I invite a guest to the Forum here at Minnesota Public Radio Headquarters to talk about important issues and ideas before a live audience. My guest this time is Dawn Upshaw. She is one of the world's most celebrated singers, and one of five artistic partners with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.
Dawn Upshaw and the SPCO are premiering a new work this week by Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy, and he will also join us on the program.
Ms. Upshaw is known for her deep commitment to new music and for working in close partnership with some of the most important composers of our time. We will talk this hour about the process of artistic collaboration, why she chose to make new music such a vital part of her work, and what the job of a world-class musician is like. So please welcome Dawn Upshaw.
Dawn Upshaw: Thank you.
Smith: Dawn Upshaw, the premise of our conversation is creative collaboration, and just such one partnership is what brings you to Minnesota this week. Tell us about the work that you are premiering on Friday night and have yet to rehearse?
Upshaw: That's correct.
Upshaw: That's the way it goes, at least these days, especially in America. You work on a subscription-week concert, and sometimes you're seeing the other musicians for the first time, anyway. I've had the score for a while, thank goodness, but we all get together just a few days before the premiere. So it's very exciting, but it's nerve-wracking, as you can imagine.
Smith: Wow. So this is a piece by Donnacha Dennehy, who we'll bring into the conversation in a moment.
Upshaw: Yes. And I'm going to forget the... oh, well, maybe Donnacha, then, can speak to the text.
Smith: Sure. But this comes out of a collaboration that you've already had together.
Upshaw: Yes. We've worked on one other piece together so far. I hope there'll be many ahead of us, but we've... Donnacha wrote a song cycle called "That the Night Come" with Yeats poems. And we hit it off immediately. It was one of the most comfortable beginnings in all the work that I've done with composers.
Smith: And this song cycle is on a CD by Nonesuch, which came out I think last year or the year before?
Upshaw: It came out, yes, about a year ago.
Smith: Something like that, yeah. And William Butler Yeats, we'll be listening to a couple of excerpts from the CD to kind of get us ready to think about what you're going to be performing this weekend.
So how does it work when an artistic partnership like this comes about? Does he send you an email? Does his people call your people? How would a modern composer and a performer such as you get together and start cooking up a scheme?
Upshaw: This is terrible, but I'm just drawing a complete blank. I'm thinking, I picture us walking in the park and talking about all sorts of things, and for some reason, I'm forgetting who brought us together to begin with.
Donnacha Dennehy: It was Bob Hurwitz that brought us together. He played a piece of mine to Dawn.
Upshaw: Oh, how could I forget this? Oh, oh, oh, oh, Bob Hurwitz, President of Nonesuch. We were at the Santa Fe Music Festival, and we were early for a symposium that we were going to attend, and he said, "Let me play you something in my car that I really think you'll like a lot." And so he played a piece of Donnacha's, and I fell in love with it.
And I don't even know if Bob... well, he may have had a plan all along, but my reaction was so strong that things got cooking right away.
Smith: It almost sounds like it's out of a rock and roll movie, to be honest with you. Like the producer is there, you're in the car driving down the highway, "Hey, let me put this tape in. You've got to listen to this guy."
Upshaw: It is kind of like that, why not? I know, you know, we have this idea that sometimes classical music doesn't have that kind of spontaneity or something, but most...
Smith: It's very serious.
Upshaw: Very serious, serious. The best of it isn't so serious when there's a spark. And that's really meaningful, to pay attention to things like that.
Smith: Well, this isn't what you would've heard, because it's actually you singing, but let's listen now for a moment from the composition, the cycle set to the Yeats poems, by Donnacha Dennehy. The cycle is called "That the Night Come", and here is a setting of the poem entitled "These are the Clouds". And I'm going to ask first of all that Donnacha read the text, and then we'll listen to the music.
"These are the clouds about the fallen sun,
The majesty that shuts his burning eye,
The weak lay hand on what the strong has done,
Till that be tumbled that was lifted high,
And discord follow upon unison,
And all things at one common level lie.
And therefore, friend, if your great race were run,
And these things came, so much the more thereby,
Have you made greatness your companion,
Although it be for children that you sigh:
These are the clouds about the fallen sun,
The majesty that shuts his burning eye."
Smith: Dawn, when you are working with a composer, how does the process work in terms of, like does he send you drafts of material? Does he fax you stuff? What's the... do you guys get together? How does that work?
Upshaw: It really varies from each experience. He or she will sometimes ask me what I think about certain texts and poetry and get my response, which is really nice, and of course, that's what Donnacha did with "That the Night Come".
And usually, where there's a conversation about my own strengths and weaknesses, what I feel they are, and I try to give a composer some, in some cases, a sense of what I feel I might have to offer that I haven't been able to utilize maybe even as much with other composers, you know, depending on the style of the music.
I know Donnacha was interested, for instance, in the fact that I do like to sing and use my lower register. Because I'm labeled a soprano, a lot of people have a really kind of boxed view of what that means in terms of where I should sit all the time. So there've been a few composers that I've worked with where I realized that it's OK if I ask them to pay close attention to my entire range.
And then in some cases, some composers send things in advance while they're writing, and I respond to them. I remember there was a time with John Adams where he was writing this big, huge piece, "El Nino", and he had done one of my scenes first, and so I was able to respond in time for him to make a few alterations with some things that I found particularly difficult.
And there are some composers who know right away what they want to write, and there's not much discussion.
Smith: I see. But Donnacha, in your case, when you are writing with Dawn Upshaw in mind, what is it that you are sort of artistically picturing? Are you hearing her voice? Do you have her in your mind's eye in performance? How are you thinking about her as you're writing?
Dennehy: Yeah, I do hear her voice, and I like to at least comfort myself that it will be her voice and not my voice ultimately that's singing, because I'm singing along writing it, and of course, it sounds like cats removing their whiskers, and I think, "It will Dawn singing it."
Smith: That sells in some places, but...
Dennehy: The Japanese noise scene... Which has its merits, of course.
Dennehy: I do, actually, imagine her voice quite strongly. I would say, yeah. I hear it in my head as I'm writing it, actually.
But then I'm shocked at how good it is when I hear it afterwards, actually, because today we were going through it and it was so wonderful to hear Dawn sing it.
Smith: In the case of the work that you've done so far, is it a back-and-forth, where she is making suggestions to you that you then change the music, or how does that work?
Dennehy: We changed a few things today, all right.
Dennehy: But small little things. Usually, when I'm in the process of writing it, then I'm in the process of writing it, and sometimes you just have to go with it then, at that stage.
We, in advance of that outcome, we met a few times. We met in this lovely coffee shop in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which had these funny buns. Popover Shop?
Upshaw: Popover Cafe.
Dennehy: Yeah. We had a great discussion that day, where Dawn was talking about parts of her register, etc., all about her voice which she, of course, knows really intimately, but also in a real clear way, as well, to discuss it.
We were looking through texts and that was very, very helpful. There was a few things back and forth, but not much. Then I remember we then went through, actually, when I presented that piece to her, it was a lovely present.
It sticks in my mind as the best hand-over of a piece, ever. We met in a park in London, Hyde Park. It was a sunny day and we sat on a park bench, listening to the mock-up and going through it together. That was ideal, and there were discussions that came from that.
Smith: When you say, "Listening to the mock-up," what do you mean?
Dennehy: You make a kind of a mock-up to give a general idea of how it goes. Of course, it's rigid and unbending...
Upshaw: Computerized mock-up.
Dennehy: ...but it's kind of standard these days...
Smith: Computerized mock-up.
Dennehy: ...to send a mock-up, yeah, so you have some kind of idea.
Smith: You're listening on headphones, or you're playing it on a boom box, or what?
Dennehy: We didn't actually do it on a boom... Dawn had this great device where she could split the headphones.
Smith: You guys are sitting on a park bench in London, listening to the music.
Upshaw: It was fantastic. Beautiful day, and I loved what I was hearing, so I was just like... [laughs]
I kept looking at him.
Smith: For the radio audience, she's smiling ear to ear.
Upshaw: I'm sorry, that's not good for radio, but I was listening and I kept looking at him, and I was sighing and it was just... For me, it was also the best hand-off.
Dennehy: And we weren't drunk. We were sober.
Smith: Dawn, you have worked closely with, as you've said, composers like John Adams, John Harbison. What makes Donnacha special?
Upshaw: He's fun. He's not hung up on himself. That's really what... He's real. It's very easy to talk, work. I feel there's a kinship, musically, too.
His music doesn't sound like anybody else's music, it sounds like him, but I think that he enjoys some of the same aspects of music, in his life, in the way that I do. Music is meaningful in his life, I think, in a similar way to how music is meaningful to me in my life.
It's not a heady trip. It's something that speaks to your heart, and I can't say that that's true of every composer I've worked with.
Smith: Some are more intellectual about it.
Upshaw: Yes, and colder, somehow, in a certain way.
Smith: What happens if you, Dawn, don't agree with the way a piece is coming out with a composer? Have you ever walked away from a project?
Upshaw: A premier, no.
Smith: You really can't do that, I suppose.
Upshaw: I have great admiration for composers, and a great deal of respect. This is really difficult, what they're trying to do and I know, from having worked closely with a few composers, I know what energy, time and love they have put into a given piece.
I feel, when I take on a new piece, that it is my duty, in a sense, to give my best.
What I have done is not repeated pieces, sometimes, if I really feel... I actually feel like, if it didn't do it for me, it might do it for somebody else, and it actually deserves a hearing by somebody else. I'm probably not doing it justice if it didn't really turn me on.
I think, in those situations, I don't feel badly at all about not repeating a piece.
Smith: Switching gears a little bit, as I've read through the articles about you and listened to some interviews that were conducted with you, I was amused at the number of times that writers have described you, with some surprise, as sort of an "all-American suburban mom."
You're knocking your head back going, "OK."
Upshaw: I know.
Smith: What are you supposed to be doing, wearing a gown and a tiara all the time? How does that...?
Upshaw: I'm from the Midwest.
Smith: You grew up outside of Chicago.
Upshaw: Grew up outside of Chicago. I don't know. This has come up before, as you mention. I don't know if it's a disappointment to people, sometimes, that I'm not... I don't know. Up on a pedestal.
Upshaw: I don't know about the difficulty, but there's some sort of thrill, for some people, to place someone kind of outside of the norm. To elevate them.
I'll tell you, as each day passes, and each year, I feel less and less deserving of any praise like that, really. I'm doing what I love to do. I want to do it well. I feel very, very fortunate to be doing something that I love so much, but I don't think that it's extraordinary, actually.
Smith: I'd like to talk a little more about how you got into music, about your upbringing. You grew up in a Chicago suburb, in a musical family?
Upshaw: Amateur musicians, yes.
Smith: The Upshaw Family Singers.
Upshaw: Oh, dear. Yeah. Well, that was very short-lived. I had one sister and we sang with my parents. My Dad played guitar.
This was the time in the '60s, I was growing up in the '60s and early '70s, during the Civil Rights movement, and my parents were quite involved in our town, and went on a few marches, but they played in the house, all the time, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Peter Paul & Mary, Joan Baez.
That's what I grew up on, and that's really... I now understand, much better, what that meant in terms of how it shaped me, musically speaking. Music was meant to try to change the world. Text was the poetry, the words were just about everything. If you got a great tune to go along with it, then wow, that's even better. It was music, always, with a message.
I loved singing, but I didn't really know anything about classical music, and it was only when I went to school, at Illinois Wesleyan, and started taking the required courses for a music degree, that I heard and studied Schubert and even French chanson by the King's Singers. I remember sitting in the music library hearing this renaissance music and being totally blown away.
Smith: When you went to college, you weren't expecting to be a singer.
Upshaw: I actually auditioned at different schools for music theatre.
Smith: Musical theatre.
Upshaw: Musical theatre, and I decided... I loved singing in choirs, so I was very drawn to the Christmas Choral Concert. When I was a senior, I had someone take me to Illinois Wesleyan for their Christmas Choral Concert and I thought, "You know, maybe I'll zero in on music. Go to a school where I can zero in on music and take acting on the side," so I switched gears while I was there.
Smith: When did you realize that really, that your voice really was your instrument?
Upshaw: I wanted it to be my instrument much sooner than anybody else wanted to listen to it, I could tell you.
Upshaw: I studied oboe in high school. I stopped in high school, actually, and I was much, much better at playing the oboe, at that point, than I was at singing. I did not get into the top choirs in high school and junior high. Well, I did in high school, I guess, eventually.
I had this love. I felt like it was the greatest way for me to express myself. I wasn't so interested... I wasn't a social butterfly or anything. I felt very at home expressing myself with music.
I think I knew that, first of all. I just wandered around and found different kinds of music, and ultimately it was classical music that grabbed me the most.
Smith: You started out, and have had, an exceptionally successful career doing a more classical repertoire, operatic repertoire. Mozart and the like, and you could have kept on with a very busy schedule in that way, you know, the rest of your career.
But at some point, not that the new music wasn't always there as a thread, but it seems like there was a point in which you concentrated more on that, and less on the usual suspects. Is that right?
Upshaw: Yes, I think so.
Smith: And why? When was that? How did that shift happen?
Upshaw: I believe that my interests... From the moment that I decided I wanted to study classical music, my voice teacher, David Nott, who ended up being my father-in-law also and is, sadly, not with us anymore, but he really was very important to me.
He was the choir director, so for both the choir and for some of his students, he assigned, brought in new compositions. So even in undergraduate, I didn't think that that was so unusual. I didn't find out until I went to graduate school in New York how unusual it was that I already had premiered a few new pieces in undergrad.
So I knew that, I was being told over and over again, to really sort of get my work rolling and performances and career, that I probably needed to do some opera. And at first, I really resisted, but once you get to know a lot of these fabulous pieces, it's kind of crazy to resist, in a sense. And Mozart was certainly the composer I probably sang most often in opera, a repertoire that was already, you know, older repertoire.
And I loved doing that. I mean, and occasionally I get back to Mozart, and I learned so much about music and about my own voice through Mozart. And it's just glorious, so I'm very, very thankful.
But I felt, I noticed that I felt more alive, somehow, when I was working with composers or working on newer music. I felt like I was living in my own time and responding to creative ideas that were coming from, you know, moments that we're all living, you know, rather than re-creating other ideas.
And of course, you know, "The Marriage of Figaro" will be performed over and over again, because it is just magic and a masterpiece, but I also really, really wanted to live in my own time, and to learn from my colleagues.
Smith: That sounds like it's connected to your upbringing, to the music that you were exposed to growing up.
Upshaw: Yes, probably.
Smith: Joni Mitchell was a big influence for you.
Upshaw: Oh, yes, I didn't mention Joni Mitchell, but yes, I've heard every album, yeah.
Smith: I mean, so this is contemporary music with, you know, not only a message, but many messages.
Smith: And in her case, very poetic.
Upshaw: Yes, yes, extremely. I bet you're a big Joni Mitchell fan.
Smith: Huge Joni fan, yeah. Was there any point at which you were concerned that there might be a professional trade off involved in making a decision to champion...
Upshaw: I think there was.
Smith: Tell me about that.
Upshaw: Well, I mean, it's a different life, if you want it, to travel all the time and sing the most popular opera roles in the big...
Smith: In front of really big audiences. At the big venues, with the big costumes.
Upshaw: Yeah. And even to, you know, sing some of that repertoire consistently with orchestras, it's more money. I mean, one of the things I'm enjoying about making... or, that I've always enjoyed about making choices is not getting too wrapped up in the rat race of that kind of schedule. Because I lived it for a little while.
Smith: Pretty exhausting.
Upshaw: Yeah. I didn't enjoy it.
Smith: And hard to have a family, by the way.
Upshaw: Very, very hard.
Smith: You have two children. One's in high school and one's in college, but part of the choice here was also to be around.
Upshaw: Yes. And I actually, you know, you learn by being away for too long what your limitations have to be, and everybody's are different, of course. But I was living by those rules quite early on after a few very difficult periods of being away too long. So yeah, that was not for me.
But I learned that probably when the kids were, I don't know, five, something.
Smith: Let's now listen to another selection from the recording of Donnacha Dennehy's composition "That the Night Come". This is a setting of a Yeats poem, which is "The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water." And I'll invite Donnacha to read that before we then listen to Dawn singing it.
Dennehy: This is "The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water":
"I heard the old, old men say,
And one by one we drop away.'
They had hands like claws, and their knees
Were twisted like the old thorn-trees
By the waters.
I heard the old, old men say,
'All that's beautiful drifts away
Like the waters.'"
Smith: Dawn Upshaw performing a Yeats poem set to music by Donnacha Dennehy. Donnacha, why Yeats, and why these particular poems? How do you go about selecting what texts you want to set to music, and to what extent are you in conversation with someone like Dawn about that as you're doing it?
Dennehy: Well, actually, I was in quite a bit of conversation with Dawn about setting these, because I came with a number of different texts that I was considering.
But Yeats was, well, he's sort of like a national figure in Ireland, like the national poet in a way that, it was important in a way in sort of inventing Irish identity, to some extent, when we were on the border of getting our independence from Britain back in the 1920s.
And he was this, he founded the Abbey Theatre, and...
Smith: Which is sort of a, I mean, it's sort of a national theatre, in a way, for Ireland.
Dennehy: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah. And that was important in kind of creating this kind of artistic dialogue for this new emerging nation. I mean, everyone... I mean, Ireland is, of course, really, really old, but in terms of being self-governed. And so he was important in this whole kind of thing.
So there was that thing for me. We all learned his poetry at school, and he was this kind of big figure, a kind of sacred cow of Ireland, so I like to take on the sacred cows, so I had done...
Smith: But herd them rather than probably slaughter them, it sounds like.
Dennehy: Yeah, oh God, no, yeah. But I loved his poetry, so the real reason is that it spoke to me so personally. And, you know, I'd learned it off as a child, some of it, but it was really interesting to read it all again as an adult and how much more it meant to me.
Actually, it's amazing how you learn poems as a school child, and they kind of mean something to you, and then you've had experience in-between, and they mean a lot more.
And, you know, in Ireland, we can be, despite our surface joy, we can be quite fatalistic about things. And a lot of Yeats...
Smith: Famous streak of darkness runs there.
Dennehy: Yeah, there is that, yeah. Yeah, and, you know, there is this kind of trait in some of Yeats, and, you know, it sort of spoke to me.
And also, it's not just that, it's also that there are lots of levels and meaning in it. Like that song we just heard, I mean, it's interesting that there's a slight almost not contradiction, but a slight twist between the poem and the title. The title is "The Old Men Admiring Themselves", so he's actually, in the title, he pokes fun of what they say there, their certainty that oh, yeah, it's all going to... don't you have any idea that it's all going to drip away and that's it?
And so I like these tensions in Yeats's work. He's a really profound, deep poet.
Smith: Well, talk about the work that is premiering this week. It is titled...
Dennehy: Another optimistic title, "If He Died, What Then?"
Smith: It's a crowd-pleaser, to be sure.
Dennehy: Yes. It's based on a pretty big event in Irish history, which is the famine, which actually turned out to be a big event in American history, too, in a way, because a million Irish people immigrated to America during the period, and that's where you had the sort of... it had a huge impact on emerging America as well.
So this is actually an account written by this American woman who had emigrated to Ireland during the famine, amazingly. She was from New York. Well she was born in Vermont, but she had a boarding house for the poor in New York, and went to... because she knows all the poor -- the new poor that were coming in were coming from Ireland -- and she traveled around the country, often on foot, in fact.
She was really quite a brave woman, and this was her account of this unfolding famine that she saw before her. And in particular she got very exercised by these what were known as "relief officers," paid by the government to give out relief, and of course, they were incredibly bureaucratic and didn't really care if people perished or anything as long as they had filled in their book correctly.
And this piece is about an interaction between an old man who is traveling to get the grain, or whatever he needs to survive for his family, and the attitude of the relieving officer towards him as witnessed by Asenath Nicholson.
Smith: Dawn Upshaw, let's bring in your relationship with the SPCO and how this particularly piece comes about. This is a commission?
Upshaw: Yes. One of the best things about our relationship is a new piece every year of my contract with them so...
Smith: And you get to choose who does the work? How does that work?
Upshaw: We have conversation about it. I've had some ideas, certainly, and they're discussed with them. So I suppose in most cases, the ideas have come from me, and sometimes our composers I've worked with before.
But it's a wonderful opportunity for everyone, actually. I think it's very important, and we don't see it in all that many orchestras in the country sort of devoting themselves to new music this particular way.
Smith: And the SPCO is... it's unique in many ways, but one of them is that rather than having a resident music director, there are these artistic partners, and you're one of five, I believe.
Upshaw: I believe that's correct.
Smith: So what does it mean to be an artistic partner with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and how does that then fold into unveiling a piece like this?
Upshaw: Well it means that there will be three subscription weeks that I will program with them and appear in each season of my contract. So this is my second three-year term. I'm in the middle of it. It means for me... first of all I have very warm feelings for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.
Smith: For the radio audience, she has got both hands over her heart.
Upshaw: And one of my very first professional jobs was here. It was one of those first brave groups to take me on and hire me. And this artistic partnership means that they're a collaboration for me. I get to know the players much better than I would with other orchestras I would appear with now and again.
And a little bit more energy is spent on the relationship, on making music in the way that makes us happiest rather than following somebody's musical ideas so much. I think there's a little more input from both sides.
Smith: Because in a more conventional circumstance it'd be more regimented, people would show up and do their work.
Upshaw: There are some orchestras with whom I have a long relationship with, and then sometimes depending on who the conductor is, I can have conversations like that, but that's rare. That's rare.
And, of course, for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, they get quite a variety having five different artistic partners. There's a great deal more variety, I would imagine, for them in terms of the kinds of music they're playing and the sort of leadership they have especially in conductors.
Smith: Is it unusual for a singer to be in the kind of role you're in relative to an orchestra like this?
Upshaw: I suppose so. I think probably, yes, another way that they were one of the first. Hopefully that will change, and we'll see singers taking on a little bit more responsibility.
Smith: One of the things that you have encountered in your personal life in recent years was you did battle with cancer, and I'm curious how that affected both the way you went about pursuing your art and deciding what you wanted to do with your art going forward?
Upshaw: Well it's... I think we all have experiences in our lives that change us.
Smith: The bells are ringing faintly in the background, the bells of the church across the street.
Smith: Is that significant?
Upshaw: Perhaps. And I think whether it's loss -- if we lose someone very close to us -- or serious illness, or divorce, it changes your perspective on things, and I... Just like any of us that goes through these things, you want to be careful about your choices. So I think if anything these experiences kind of... As devastating as they are, sometimes, it's calming in the end.
I end up... I am feeling now somehow that, you know, it's not...I'm not trying to do brain surgery when I go out on stage [laughs] , you know? It's like I'm just trying to sing. I'm just singing. I'm just trying to give something. And I think I take myself less seriously maybe through all of that.
Smith: And you didn't take yourself all that seriously to begin with. I mean not...
Upshaw: Yes. Maybe I'm in trouble now.
Upshaw: Yeah, I think that's primarily what happens. Those people close to me are even closer, and those relationships mean even more, and it just shifts everything a little bit.
Smith: Are there things that you sort of have as goals for yourself that you have yet to accomplish, things that are on your professional "to-do" list?
Upshaw: I... Absolutely not, just to continue. It sounds really corny, but I just really want to not stop working hard at what I'm doing. I want to try to learn from it, because it's actually also enriching my life constantly. So I just hope that I don't get bored with it or something to the point where I do it badly. That's a fear I have.
But there's not an opera house I want to sing in that I haven't sung in, and I haven't sung in all the opera houses by any means, all the big opera houses. There are many that I haven't, but I don't have that feeling. I actually have the opposite feeling, that I would really like to try to keep simplifying my life, and I would like it to be stiller, and I would like it to be simpler.
Smith: And so where does your day-to-day motivation to perform come from? What's the... You don't have this list of goals that might sound artificial. Is it absolutely essentially that you keep performing? Is that such an important part of you that you kind of can't imagine life without it?
Upshaw: Well I've thought about this, you know, because... And it goes back to this is a form of expression for me. It's a form of saying something to life, to my life. But I've been ill at times, and for long periods time, where I haven't been able to do this. And I've realized that as difficult as it was, it was not impossible, and that my life didn't cave in so I'm less fearful, and I think that I can imagine not singing, actually, to be honest.
I hoped... It's important to me to have music in my life, so whenever that time comes, whether I have to stop for some reason or I choose to stop, I do enjoy working with music, whether it's with students of mine or in other ways, in discussion or who know where it will lead. I don't know.
Smith: What about writing yourself and composing yourself?
Upshaw: I so wish I could do that. [laughs] I think if your question what's my dream or my fantasy it would be to be a singer/songwriter, but I don't have it. I definitely don't.
Smith: Now how do you know? Have you tried?
Upshaw: No, but I mean...
Upshaw: Well, you can't just sit down and say, "OK, I'm going to try to write a song." I mean it's just not there. Right, Donnacha? It's like there, right, when you hear the music, and you want to write it down? I'm always imagining that's the case for composers.
Dennehy: Oh, I don't know. I think you should give it a shot, Dawn.
Dennehy: I'll get the album.
Upshaw: [laughs] No.
Smith: You have two children. One is in high school, and one is in college. Are either musician?
Upshaw: They both took music lessons. Both of them played piano. My son is quite serious about electric bass, and he's also getting into jazz right now. I'm not sure... Well, I say quite serious. It's a big part of his life. My daughter gets back to her piano every once in a while.
But I think will remain a part of the lives, and I don't know that they will... I'm pretty certain, as certain as one can be of anything, that my daughter probably won't make it...
Smith: Try to make a living at it.
Upshaw: ...a living at it. But my son might. I don't know.
Smith: Permit me to ask you kind of a goofy question, if I may. Especially with your musical theater background, you know you're around the houses, you're doing the dishes, do you ever just break out into song?
Upshaw: Probably not like you're hoping.
Smith: I'm thinking if I could break into song... I kind of want to.
Upshaw: I'll tell you, my kids really didn't want to hear me singing.
Upshaw: They did not enjoy hearing me practice at all. But, no, I... when I break into song it's usually from working on a piece like when I'm really trying to get all the rhythms correct. In Donnacha's piece, especially, that's been kind of a challenge for me. And so then I'll break into that kind of song. But not a Joni Mitchell song.
Smith: I'm curious about how someone in your position with your voice, how do you care for your instrument on a day-to-day basis?
Upshaw: It's really important. It's really boring, but sleep is the most important thing and then H2O.
Smith: Sleep and water. How often do you practice?
Upshaw: Oh, gosh. That varies quite a bit depending on whether I'm ill [laughs] which I've been lately. But I cannot... I've never been able to really sing for more than two-and-a-half to three hours at a stretch. Well that is really rare. I'll be honest. I rarely will practice.
If I'm learning a new piece I might be at the keyboard for a good couple of hours and stuff, but singing full out, it's really too taxing. If you can imagine you never see one character in an opera singing through every scene. So I always was kind of thankful that [laughs] I wasn't going to have to practice too much, because I wouldn't be able to practice too much [laughs] , that I would hurt my voice.
Smith: And you practice at home?
Smith: In an apartment.
Upshaw: Actually, I'm in a house and it's... I moved to a new place a couple years ago, and it's the best practice space yet. It's great. It's really great.
Smith: But back in the old days did you live an apartment and practice there? I'm just curious about what the neighbors would say.
Upshaw: Oh, I was always nervous about the neighbors.
Smith: Nobody bangs on the pipe or...?
Smith: Or bangs on the pipe for more, like encore?
Upshaw: I mean I actually... you know what? When I was living in apartments I was also in a training program at the Metropolitan Opera and I practiced there. I'm very, very nervous about singing in hotels, and this was because of an experience very early on when I was practicing and a woman came and knocked on my door, and she said, "I'm realizing that you probably could do something with your voice."
Upshaw: "You sound like you are pretty good, and so I don't want to be insulting or anything. I think you should continue with it. But I am a mathematician, and I am trying to work with numbers and it's just driving me crazy."
Upshaw: And this was already when I had been working for quite a few years, and so I thought [laughs] it was great. But I won't...you know listening to singer in a hotel room, next door to a singer, I think it's really hard, isn't it?
Smith: Well I haven't had the experience. I've had the TV in the room next door.
Upshaw: Ah. There's singers and violins. I think that's kind of hard.
Smith: Donnacha Dennehy, I want to ask you a bit about where your inspirations come from. As Dawn suggested earlier, do you constantly have music playing in your head?
Dennehy: Oh, no, no. I didn't have anything playing in my head just there. I was listening to you.
Dennehy: And other times it's out of necessity you have it playing in your head. But, yeah, when I'm in the middle of a conversation I can be fairly obsessive about it all right. I could take up the entire day with it all right. But then other times you can switch off.
But sometimes when you're in the middle of piece you dream about it and everything, and it can be fairly intense. [laughs] And then I don't really know where my ideas come from. They just sort of flow out, you know? And sometimes when you're in the middle of doing it that's when they sort of really come, you know? Sometimes it's even good to start, just start, and then ideas start coming to you even if when you're starting it's not as good.
Smith: But is it a sit down at a desk process, take walk kind of thing, all of the above?
Dennehy: Yeah, mainly sitting down at a desk. I think that's the most vital piece of furniture in the composer's life ... and you can be anywhere, I think, as long as you have a flat surface to work on. I mean I really think it is kind of important to have a room that you go to to work in, but, yeah, you do get struck with ideas anywhere.
I remember when I was a kid and I had read the life of Beethoven, and I saw that he kept these notebooks that he'd keep in the countryside, so I thought, "Oh, I need that. I'm going to have a notebook, and every time I'm near a stream I'm going to have an idea."
Dennehy: But, you know, I think also just the fact of being at your desk knowing that you write it the ideas then come then, but they can come anywhere. And sometimeswhen you're slightly away from the pressure of writing something will strike you. It'll all become clear.
Smith: You're growing up in Ireland, and you're hanging out by streams, it's a bit damp, though, isn't it?
Dennehy: Yeah, well we have good streams, yeah, because of the rain.
Upshaw: Can I go back for just a second?
Smith: Sure. Absolutely.
Upshaw: It's interesting because you asked me about practicing, but for me -- and I imagine for most singers, and certainly I talk to my students about this -- that the actual singing and the practicing is only a portion of the work.
And that's actually one of the wonderful things about having to stop and rest your vocal cords is that you really do need to do the kind of silent work or study, whether it's translating or thinking about diction, but more importantly thinking about the words, these words that you're saying and the meaning behind them, and reading poetry, just taking the text away from the music and just reading it.
And it really adds so much to your understanding and to the process of sharing the idea, the musical idea, when you dig into the text, and also historical background, of course.
Smith: You do some of that kind of reading as well?
Upshaw: It is so much easier today. I tell my students, "You have it so easy. You have this computer here, and you can just do a Google search on the poet." I mean it's so easy these days to get more information anyway.
Smith: You sing in a lot of different languages, and I know that you speak or have some fluency in German, French, and maybe...
Upshaw: Just those two, and just a little.
Smith: Well how do you do the other ones? Do you call up a... Do you have like a...?
Upshaw: With a coach, with a language...
Smith: You dial up your Finnish coach or whatever language you're...
Upshaw: Well it's good to live in New York City. There are people from everywhere almost there, so you can find a coach. There are actually some wonderful language coaches that happen to know six or seven languages themselves.
Smith: And they're not specializing in music, they're... they do this...
Upshaw: Some of them are. Some of them work with singers, primarily.
Smith: And what's the most sort of exotic or challenging that you've had to sort of wrap your voice around, if you will?
Upshaw: I had a great deal of trouble memorizing Czech, but part of that was... It was the Janacek opera, "The Cunning Little Vixen," and I had done the role first in English and then went to the Czech, and I wish that I had the first performances in Czech and then in English, because it was...
Smith: Is the sentence structure different than the order of the words?
Upshaw: Yes, and just a real mouthful, the sounds, and nothing really that relates very much to English. It has more in common with Finnish, actually. And I haven't sung much Finnish. [laughs] I think one song or two.
Smith: So let's start with the audience, and tonight one of our guest groups here is the Saint Paul Central High School Central Singers, and I've asked that ... one of their students ... is going to ask the first question.
Eva: Hi, I'm Eva, and my question was, well as a student looking at music, you get a lot of people coming up to you and being like, "Oh, well music. What's your Plan B?" So I was wondering, Donnacha can answer this, too, what was your guys' Plan B if you maybe didn't make it in music?
Upshaw: Wow. I did not have a Plan B, so maybe that's made all the difference. I don't know. And I was ignorant. Ignorance is bliss, you know? So I had no idea how difficult it was. So I'm afraid I'm no help to you there.
Smith: Do you encourage young people who are thinking about going into music to have a Plan B?
Upshaw: No, but you know, I do feel that the schools have a responsibility that sometimes they don't take, that colleges have a responsibility to have realistic conversations with their students.
I teach at Bard College Conservatory. It's a graduate program, two year program in New York. It's a new program. We've only had it for five years. We take eight students in each class, and usually less than that. At the most, 8, so at the most we'll have 16 there.
They're all very, very different kinds of singers, and they're at a point in their lives when they're just really learning so much about what they want to say with their voices.
I am kind of appalled at the really large schools that need to keep making money and take in so many more students than are ever going to find work out there. I think it's hideous.
Smith: Donnacha Dennehy, from your perspective was there a plan B?
Dennehy: Actually, like Dawn, I didn't have a Plan B, although I did have a flute teacher who was very interested in my pursuing carpentry as well.
Dennehy: I think she had wanted me to do the plan B. Well, no, she was quite encouraging as well, but no. I didn't. I was foolish enough not to have a plan B.
Joseph Tambornino: Hi, my name is Joseph Tambornino. I grew up here. I now live in California. I've been a huge fan of yours, Dawn. I hope I can call you Dawn because you feel like one of my best friends, even though we've never met.
Tambornino: You've touched me with Messiaen, singing Tristan songs. Back in Hertz Hall, you had the whole hall weeping. Ophelia, from "Girl With Orange Lips," or Rodgers and Hart songs. All of these come from some deep place within you. Any one of them come from the deepest place?
Upshaw: Oh, that's too hard. That's very hard.
Tambornino: Or any genre, I guess, maybe is the question.
Upshaw: I don't know. There is something about the Messiaen that maybe touches my soul. I feel engaged in a way that I can't verbalize, so I think that's a good thing. It gets so deep that I can't even figure out how to find words to talk about it.
I think Messiaen does that pretty consistently to me, for me.
I've never answered that question, so I never knew that was going to be the answer, but I'm going to stick with that. [laughs]
Woman 1: I'm from Minneapolis, and my question is for the composer. The orchestration that I was hearing was rippling music. Rippling, watery music. I'm not sure, even, what instruments I was hearing. Could you say more about the orchestration?
Dennehy: Yes. I presume you're talking about the "Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water", in particular, or both?
Woman 1: It's the first.
Dennehy: The first. Oh, right. The instrumentation is my group, Crash Ensemble, and it's a mixed ensemble. It's got strings, winds, piano and accordion.
Accordion might be an unusual instrument, there, in the sound. That sometimes almost sounds slightly electronic in the sound. It's something I get very, very obsessed by, is instrumentation. Creating these sound combinations.
Yeah, there is a kind of watery... It's interesting that you would spot that. I sometimes hear water in my music, too, and I wonder is it because I grew up in a country surrounded by sea, and that there was something there.
Woman 1: It's very touching.
Dennehy: Oh, thanks.
Anne: Anne, from Bloomington. I have a question for Donnacha. Regarding your music, that piece also struck me. The way the music fit with the text, when Dawn sang "The Twisted Tree," the music was kind of twisted around that. You could feel... I also heard the water.
It did a very, very good job of matching the music with the text. You started with the text, obviously, with the Yeats pieces. Do you generally start with the lyrics and then build the music around it, or what's your process for composition?
Dennehy: Absolutely. Every time I write for voice and I have a text, I completely try to inhabit the text first, and really also figure out where I stand in relation to the text, because I think when you're adding music to something, you're thinking about how the music colors meaning, as well.
That's why I think that it was really interesting that Dawn said she encourages her students to take time out from actually just singing it and to really read the text, because that actually will tell you a lot about why the composer has made certain decisions, as well.
Sometimes I think people get so caught up in the action of doing this that they forget to take time out and actually look at what the text is.
The text, when I am writing, really triggers lots of approaches for me. This text that's on, on Friday night, about the famine, I had a real, strong response to some aspects of that text. It really triggers, not just the music there and then, but also the structure of the piece and everything.
Anne: I sing church music, and that's what we do. Take the text, take the scripture and study that, and then put the music.
Dennehy: Yeah, absolutely. It's probably what the composer did too.
Man 1: I'm from the Philippines and I wondered if you could talk to us a little more specifically about your compositional process. Once you've selected the text, what are the steps you take, early on, in determining things about rhythm, melody, harmony and whatnot?
Dennehy: I don't know if I'm entirely conscious of everything that I do. It depends. It's different for each piece. If you're dealing with text, that triggers an awful lot. In this new piece that I wrote for Dawn, in fact it's interesting that you ask this, because we were just talking about how I put it together this time.
I actually started writing it all just based on the melody at first, and singing it. I recorded myself singing it, which I am not willing to share...
Dennehy: ...and then re-transcribed what I wrote, based on the different rhythmic inflections I was doing on it, then started working out how it would work with the entire orchestra, but that was unusual. Often, I don't work that way. Often there's rhythmic ideas or melodic ideas that are influencing things.
I'm also quite interested in what are known as overtones. You know, in every natural sound you have these overtones, and sometimes that really influences my harmony and rhythmic things. I could go on all day, so I think that probably gives you some little idea.
John Cole: I'm John Cole. I live in Minneapolis. I knew a lot about you and your sister before I really heard you sing. I'm married to Dee, or Deedee Cole, and my sister-in-law is Cindy Cole, from Park Forest, Illinois.
Upshaw: Oh, yes. Yes.
John Cole: I have a story that's dear to me that I want to share with you, not a question.
Much of my life in the Deep South, I spent visiting prisoners. Some of those prisoners were on death row in Louisiana and Georgia. I visited a guy named Eddie on death row in Georgia for a number of years.
He's still alive, and one of the reasons he's still alive is he has an IQ in the low 60s, and the state of Georgia can't execute him, because his level of ability is so low.
I visited him regularly, and one conversation we had, maybe 15 years ago, was what music do we like. Eddie said, "I like the opera," and my jaw just sort of dropped.
He started naming some names of people that he listened to on the public radio station in his cell, that was piped in from Atlanta. They do the live opera, periodically, on the weekends, and one of the names, among many, was yours, that he listed as one of his favorite opera singers.
John Cole: I just wanted to share that with you.
Upshaw: Thank you. Thank you.
Henry: Hi, I'm Henry from Saint Paul, and I was wondering, Dawn, when you are first listening to a piece that you might be thinking about performing, what are some things that really excite you or make you really excited to sing a piece?
Upshaw: Wow. What a good question.
It's another thing that's really hard to describe, because it's some sort of understanding that the music, the way it's been written, or the musical line, the melody, is saying something that I understand, and that I think that I could say through it.
There are kinds of music that can be impressive, because I can tell, "Oh, wow, that's really complex. Somebody's put a lot of thought into that," but I don't get it.
I know that there is music that I do get that other people don't get, but I'm sure not going to try to sing something that I don't understand, that I don't feel I can speak through, so it has to resonate with me in some way, in its expression.
One thing I've learned in the last 10, 20 years, after doing this for a while, is that I do need music to express something. I've had some experiences taking on pieces that I probably shouldn't have, because they didn't speak to me. I just need to always make sure, whatever I take on, is speaking to me so that I can have a dialogue with it.
Smith: Dawn Upshaw and Donnacha Dennehy, thank you so much for having a dialogue with us tonight.
Upshaw: Thank you.