Many, both musical and non-musical, have registered the feeling of embarrassment that can sweep over one when listening to a singer—whether that person be bellowing on the opera stage or earnestly delivering German poetry about love and nature in a song recital. It’s true that communal singing must go back to the origins of humans as social beings, to a lithic time when grunts of fear and desire transformed themselves into chants of remembrance and ritual around the cave fire. But while anyone can sing unashamedly in the warm comfort of the shower or while hiking the distant hills alone, put that same wayfarer in front of a piano in a drawing room well-stocked with aunts and neighbors and a brace of Schubert lieder and the odds are that you’ve got the makings of scenario of true horror. As a social act singing is life-affirming, but as a solo endeavor on stage or in salon it can be tough stuff to endure.
The inherent madness of opera makes it easier for the listener to skirt any discomfort, since there is the excess of plot and scenery to distract, not to mention the voice to fetishize and criticize from a high up in the second balcony. But where is one to look when art song is on offer in closer quarters? It is a question equally relevant to the singer as to his or her listeners. The generic advice for “vocalists” is to look off into the middle distance just above the heads of the audience, since eye contact only fuels embarrassment. By the same token it can be equally difficult for some listeners to concentrate their gaze on the singer in the act of song. In uncomfortable stretches of contrived emoting on the performer’s part, I tend to let my eyes drift over the back of the heads of those in front of me, or allow them to wander among the architectural features of the hall, or fix them on the less threatening accompanist.
All this is to say that overcoming the unnatural nature of a song recital is one of the most daunting tasks faced by any thinking singer. With an authentic warmth and disarming ease that quickly banished all fears of listeners like your humble Musical Patriot, the distinguished America soprano Dawn Upshaw showed in her recital at Cornell University last weekend that she can sing of love and death and everything in between without forcing me to undertake an extended inspection of the state of my cuticles.
This accomplishment appeared to me still more impressive when I recalled that I first encountered Dawn Upshaw while she was in her mid-thirties (she’s now in her mid-fifties) on a video of Peter Sellar’s 1996 Glyndebourne staging of Handel’s late oratorio Theodora in which she sang the title role of that Antioch virgin intent on saving herself for Christ rather than signing up for the Roman rites of debauchery then underway. Her Theodora sang Handel’s ravishing music with the fervor and purity the character’s faith and fate demanded, yet for all its earnestness the church-lady primness of Upshaw’s Theodora under Sellar’s direction is not easy to take.
Indeed, my long-ago introduction to Upshaw coupled with the choice of venue of Barnes Hall had filled me with trepidation. With its churchy steeple, brick walls, and large stained glass window featuring a cross looming behind the audience at which a singer on stage can gaze upward as if in prayerful supplication, the building does not do much to hide its original purpose as a meeting place for young Christian men during proudly non-denominational Cornell’s first decades.
The place is maligned by many here for being out-of-date: creaky seats; stairs up to the hall that make access difficult for some; and no toilet off the hardly-lavish green room—these top the list of demerits. Yet the hall’s glowing interior make up for such perceived deficiencies of convenience and acoustics.
Upshaw herself praised these surroundings, and she made the packed house of some 250—many of whose devotion to the singer seemed to match the aforementioned Theodora’s to Christ—feel as if they were in her own welcoming salon. When her subtle and supportively independent accompanist Gilbert Kalish offered the evening’s single work for solo piano—a poignant reading of Schubert’s Impromptu in A-flat Major (D.889)—Upshaw sat down in on-stage armchair with side table, flowers and glass of water to listen from the flank of the Steinway. This is hardly the piano of Schubert’s day—an irony not lost on many in the audience who know full well that such repertoire-specific instruments are in abundance in the Ithaca region, on the Cornell campus, and indeed just off the Barnes Hall stage. Still, the big black concert grand never sounded harsh or bombastic in Kalish’s sensitive hands, but rather sang Schubert’s dreamy reverie in a shimmer of hope and sadness. With an appealing lightness of touch Upshaw carried off even the potentially kitschy act of sitting in state as the pianist had his time in the limelight: hers was not really self-mockery, but she did not take herself too seriously, either, even while her music-making is based on the utmost commitment, skill, and artistry.
It was not just the dynamic finesse, glowing weightlessness, unwavering intonation, infinite gradations of texture, and the occasionally husky power deployed only when required by the music rather than the impulses for show that motivate so many singers, that made Upshaw’s program so compelling, it’s two hours devoid of squirming. She is not simply a singer, but more importantly a performer. The gestures and acting skills honed in her many opera appearances—some three hundred at the Met alone—may have been partly rehearsed but came off as spontaneous and persuasive, and did so unfailingly across two hours of music in four languages ranging from the often ironic nostalgia of Ives, through the obligatory Schubert, to Bartok’s sometimes sweet sometimes obstreperous settings of Hungarian folk songs, through Maurice Ravel’s noble and impish personifications of animals, to the concluding run of William Bolcom’s cabaret songs in all their scurrilousness.
I was seated next to a francophone Hungarian music lover—as one often is at provincial universities and colleges in the northeastern America forest. This refined central European praised Upshaw’s polyglot diction. But even without such skill she would have convinced and moved her audience with voice and body. No singer surpasses Upshaw’s singing, neither as pure sound nor as a form of delivering text and therefore feeling. Only a few can hope to match the appeal of her stage presence. Upshaw is the rarest of singers: she makes the lieder evening—that most artificial of classical music concert forms—seem like the most natural thing in the world.