UPDATE Sept. 29, 2017: The event has been canceled due to Upshaw being ill.
Fort Worth — The art song repertoire is crowded with European masters, but American songs are starting to be heard and respected. Not only are the vocal compositions of American writers finding their place in the recording studio. Also performance of the American Art songs is becoming more regular and more recognizable for its quality and substance.
One venue that has championed the rise in familiarity is Texas Christian University’s Annual Festival of American Song which is being held on the Fort Worth campus October 1-3. The Festival, which is in its fourth year, highlights not only the voice students and the faculty of the School of Music but also luminaries of the song world. This year, the featured guest is acclaimed soprano Dawn Upshaw, who will hold a masterclass on Sunday, perform a recital Monday evening accompanied by pianist Gilbert Kalish and round out her busy visit with a discussion session on Tuesday morning. Ms. Upshaw, a veteran of nearly 300 performances with the Metropolitan Opera Company, is a five-time Grammy winner, Fellow of the MacArthur Foundation (the first vocal artist to be awarded that honor) and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences since 2008.
I was able to contact Ms. Upshaw as she prepared for her upcoming visit and talk with her about vocal repertoire, masterclasses and the American Classical Song. She expressed excitement at being back in the Fort Worth area after a long absence and then graciously and patiently answered my questions.
Theater Jones: Did you need to go out of your way to find American repertoire for your recital at this festival?
Dawn Upshaw: I have always included a lot of American music in my repertoire. I’ve been fortunate to sing all the classic works and have been involved in commissions of new music. When you think about “classical” song, of course, there are lot of European composers. There is still not nearly as much American music. But that situation is definitely improved. More of the American works are being performed and they are terrific.
My recital will be about half American pieces. I am opening with some familiar works by Schubert, one of the greatest of German songwriters. I’m also doing some less familiar Hungarian folksongs by Bela Bartók and a song cycle by Maurice Ravel, the French composer. But the remainder of the concert is a mix of old and new American. I’m singing some Charles Ives (1874-1954), then a cycle by Rebecca Clarke who died in 1979. Although she was born in England she immigrated to the United States and became one of the best known composers and violists in the first half of the twentieth century. Finally I’m performing work by William Bolcom, a contemporary composer living and working out of University of Michigan.
Will you be exploring the lineage between the American music and the European pieces that you are performing?
I am not necessarily drawing a comparison between the European repertory and the American, but if I am making a statement, it is that the American pieces are very much the equal of the European. All these songs are equally worth hearing.
American vocal music is most notable for its variety of style. As it has come to prominence over the last century or so, it is very difficult to pinpoint a particular tradition. If you sing French music from a certain period, say the late 18th century, there is a compositional style of the times that most of the pieces use. The same is true to some extent of the German Romantic repertoire. But the American music is more adventuresome. It’s like the composers were far enough away that they didn’t know or didn’t bother with the rules. Maybe in another fifty years or so, people will be able to classify the American songs, but I doubt it. I don’t think they’ll ever be able to put Ives in a rigid box.
Are there any particularly challenges to singing in one’s own language? Any special techniques that are needed?
There is not a difference in technique in singing one’s own language, but American diction is definitely different and distinct from others. In my department [Ms. Upshaw is Artistic Director of the Vocal Arts Program at the Bard College Conservatory of Music] I insist on calling our language training “Diction and Phonation.” It is not just the pronunciation of the words but also the color of the language and that is dependent on the true vowel of the specific language. It’s not just for clarity, although you want people to understand the text. It’s also to find the true expression of the language which provides the very color to the music itself. When I sing the Bartòk in Hungarian, I hope that my accent sounds like the language. But the important thing is to be able to allow the audience to understand the expression and the power of the folksong, or any song. That is where we find the emotion and the direct communication of the stories that the songs tell.
Even in English there are at least three different types that we teach. The first is the classic British which works for most European English songs. The typical American Art song diction is what is called Mid-Atlantic. That is the sound of classic Hollywood movies; a sort of heightened American. Finally there is a more vernacular type of American such as I use in the cabaret type songs of William Bolcom in my recital. It’s almost a Midwestern dialect. Since I’m from the Midwest myself that is very near and dear to me.
Finally, what can you share about leading a masterclass?
Masterclasses are interesting animals. You have so little time, only about 20 minutes with each of the students. You have to walk a fine line between being able to really learn where the student is and being able to give a few meaningful comments or critiques. You want to make sure that there is engagement with the student, so it doesn’t feel just like a performance. Most of the time now I can establish a real chemistry with the students but the main thing is to get them to really enjoy the setting and have realistic goals about what they will achieve.
I like to focus on their process as much as anything. Their process and the tools they have. There is some technique, but in the brief setting it is more about how they can move forward from where they are. I try to get the students to understand that singing performance is about developing the technical consistency so that you can find the musical spontaneity to make the song alive.
Working with vocal students, even advanced ones, is very much like working with students in elementary school. You need to identify where the students are in their process and understand how they learn. I do that in a short time by giving them reassurance and support. You can tell so much about a person when they sing. There are always very positive things you can say about any student. I let them know how wonderful the good things that they do are. Then you can slip in the two or three learning points that the students can take home.