Soprano Dawn Upshaw gets up pretty early these days because her kids have to get to school. She's never been a coffee drinker, but lately she's taken up the morning ritual with a little French press. "I just decided to give it a go," she said when, after a cup, she spoke with Scene about her interest in new music and an upcoming performance at the Cleveland Institute of Music.
Upshaw began her career 25 years ago, fresh out of college, with a couple of significant competition prizes and began to build a career that has included more than 300 appearances with the Metropolitan Opera. Whether she was at the peak of her career in 2006, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 46, has yet to be determined. She withdrew from some performances to undergo surgery and chemo, but returned to the stage just a few months later.
Not entirely attributable to the "C" word is her sharper focus on new music in recent years. Upshaw could have a challenging and financially rewarding career performing the Mozart, Wagner and Strauss opera roles she's already mastered, but instead she's more focused on concerts and recitals, especially premiering works by composers she admires.
"After this many years, you could say I have so much repertoire that I could just draw from that," she says. "But I do find that if I don't learn something new every season, it just doesn't feel right. It's like I'm not keeping myself fresh if I don't do that."
Collaborating with composers and becoming a driving force on the world of vocal-music composition helped her earn a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award in 2007.
Her program in Cleveland — which spans Impressionism to Post Modernism, with songs by Charles Ives, John Harbison, Osvaldo Golijov and Claude Debussy — is less reflective of her thirst for the brand new, though it still traverses a fairly wide stylistic range. She says singing different styles is "a matter of trying to get into an understanding of where the music comes from. One hopes that I learn enough about the style that I'm representing something truthful and honest."