Soprano Climbs Opera Heights

Nine years ago, Dawn Upshaw knew little about the opera repertoire; this weekend, she is set to star in the Metropolitan Opera's `Magic Flute'

THE young, exquisite Pamina is being held against her will in the Temple of Sarastro; her villainous keeper has threatened to kill her if she refuses his amorous advances. Where is Tamino, the handsome young prince slated to rescue her?

Never mind - she can fend for herself. In fact Dawn Upshaw, who graces the Metropolitan Opera stage starting this Saturday as the ingenue lead in Mozart's "The Magic Flute," is busy breaking all records for speed and convention in her rapid rise to stardom. Nine years ago, the soprano arrived at the Met's Young Artist Development Program fresh out of graduate school with minimal knowledge of the operatic repertoire. Now, she has over 25 roles to her credit and is in demand on opera and concert stages aro und the world: Salzburg, Austria and Aix-en-Provence, France last summer; London and Frankfurt, Germany in the fall; the Met, the Boston Symphony, and Los Angeles Philharmonic this winter. Her first solo disc on a major label, "Knoxville: Summer of 1915" (1989, Nonesuch), won a Grammy award; so did her second, "The Girl with the Orange Lips"; her latest Nonesuch recording, Henryk Gorecki's Third Symphony, looks to be headed for a Grammy as well.

She is in short a star. "Maybe it's possible for some people to feel that way about themselves," says the elfin-looking singer over lunch in a cheery midtown Manhattan restaurant, "I don't."

Born in Nashville, raised on folk music and Barbra Streisand records, Upshaw is the antithesis of the operatic diva. She steers clear of music-biz politics and power games and has been seemingly unafraid to chart her own course in a world notorious for its adherence to stuffy convention. She is as direct, sincere, and down-to-earth as her pure-toned music making.

"Some singers are very preoccupied with themselves, with their voices and with their image," says David Zinman, who conducts her Nonesuch orchestral recordings. "Dawn is very natural. She has a great enthusiasm for what she does, and it shows in her voice. It's very bright and very clear."

Dubbed by the New York Times "one of the most critically admired singers of her generation," Upshaw grew up in Park Forest, Ill. singing alto in her high school choir and playing oboe in the orchestra. "I wanted to be in Arthur Fiedler's Boston Pops," she recalls with a smile.

Along with her father, a guitar-playing psychotherapist, and her mother, a pianist, she sang folk music in the local public schools. "We sang a lot of Peter, Paul, and Mary," she remembers. "We really didn't have much classical music in the house, except the Swingle Singers singing Bach, so I knew two sides of an album's worth of Bach by the time I went to college."

At Illinois Wesleyan University, she majored in music and studied voice; graduate school took her to Manhattan School of Music, where she concentrated on recital and contemporary repertoire - still major focal points of her career. "I didn't really get serious about opera until I thought about trying out for the Met program," she says. Once accepted, in 1984, she had some major musicological catching up to do.

"We used to play this little game in language class," she remembers of her Met apprenticeship, "where the teacher would give us a famous line or clue from an opera, and we'd have to identify the opera and the act. I lost every time."

She made up for lost time quickly. After several two- and three-line roles on the mainstage, Met artistic director James Levine decided Upshaw was ready for the short but nonetheless significant aria that Barbarina sings in Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro."

"Barbarina was a real door opener for me," says Upshaw. "Levine took me with him to the Salzburg Festival to sing it, and after that season I started getting some very nice offers."

By starting at the Met and having as powerful a mentor as Levine, Upshaw skipped the phase that most of her high-profile colleagues have weathered - toiling in the trenches of regional and European opera houses. The Met was her launching pad, her home base. "I'm really looking forward to "Flute," she says, "because the Met is home, and because Pamina is one of my favorite roles."

Upshaw's light timbre and relatively straight tone make her ideal for Mozart's soubrette roles, most of which she's recorded. During the Mozart bicentennial last season, she managed no fewer than four of his operas at the Met.

Increasingly, however, she is branching out. "I'm going to be more careful, especially about taking on more Mozart roles," she says. "I'm no longer nervous about saying no, and I want to leave room in my schedule for new projects. Last summer was so gratifying in that sense."

Upshaw sang the role of Anne Trulove, her first time in a staged version, in the Aix-en-Provence Festival production of Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress." In Olivier Messiaen's "St. Francis of Assisi," at the Salzburg Festival, she sang the part of the Angel in a highly controversial production by director Peter Sellars.

"At first I wasn't sure how appropriate I would be for the role," she says, "after all it's a little hard to imagine yourself as an Angel. But the score is so powerful. The opera became a spiritual experience for me, because it supports the idea of looking for the good in everything and having patience and understanding."

She also adored working with Sellars, classical music's enfant terrible, best known for his updates of Mozart's operas. "He's very generous, very optimistic," enthuses Upshaw. "He sees everything as a work in progress, which is very similar to how I like to work. I'm always taking pieces I performed 10 years ago and rethinking them."

THE vitality of her musicmaking shows in her conscientiousness.

"It's important for me to give a part of myself to an audience, to really communicate," she says. "I try to shed everything I've been thinking about in the practice room and totally immerse myself in the text and in the music."

Her need for intimacy and immediacy with an audience is reflected in her schedule's equal balance of recital and chamber concerts with the more lucrative opera, orchestral, and oratorio work.

After Pamina at the Met in January, and Nannetta in "Falstaff" with the Boston Symphony in February, she embarks on a recital tour with pianist Jeffrey Kahane, on which she'll introduce a new piece by North Carolina composer Kenneth Frazelle.

"I'd like to spend even more time on contemporary music," says the singer who has premiered any number of song cycles by American composers, "because I feel it rounds me out as an artist. I also love working with composers."

When she's not learning new repertoire, performing on prestigious stages, or standing at a microphone in a recording studio, Upshaw can be found at her new home in Westchester, where she lives with husband Michael Nott and their two-year-old daughter Sarah.

"I'm a real homebody," says Upshaw. "And because I have a child at home, I want to make sure that everything in my career feels purposeful to me. I see things in stages. I wouldn't be surprised if in 10 years my life was quite different."

One hopes not too different. After all, as renowned choral conductor Robert Shaw so succinctly puts it, "It's Dawn's nature to sing, just like it's a bird's nature. That's why she's here on earth."

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